Urban Wildlife - Sparrowhawk

Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) © John Black

Fascinating Fact about Sparrowhawk

The sparrowhawk is a small, fast-flying, bird of prey which was once common throughout Britain. Its numbers were severely affected by agricultural pesticides, such as DDT, which accumulated through the food chain and greatly reduced the fertility of the birds. Bans on the use of these pesticides have allowed sparrowhawk numbers to begin to recover,with an estimated 40,000 pairs in the UK.

All about Sparrowhawk

What to look for

The male weighs about 200g and with a length of up to 40cm and a wingspan of 70cm. He has a slate-grey back and reddish, barred under parts. The female is about 25% bigger, with brown upper parts and paler under parts with darker bars across them. The wings of both sexes are relatively short and rounded. The combination of a long tail but relatively short wingspan means the bird is able to dart quickly through the trees.

When and where to see

TThe sparrowhawk is present all year round and can be found mainly on farmland, in hedgerows along country lanes, and in coniferous and mixed woodland. In recent years it has also started to move into cities, towns and suburbs attracted by the abundance of prey and relatively safe nesting opportunities. In open country, the sparrowhawk fl ies low over ground, skimming hedges and fences, but staying close to cover so it can rapidly pounce on its victims. In woodland, its agility enables it to fly swiftly between the trunks and branches. In spring it can sometimes be seen displaying in the air, soaring or slowly flapping its wings. This display sometimes includes a spectacular dive with its wings closed.

Did you know

  • The Sparrowhawks are solitary birds who only come together when they want to breed during spring and early summer. The female builds a nest that is made up of both green and dry twigs, and most often placed in the branches of a conifer, close to the trunk.
  • It carries its prey to a ‘plucking post’ which is usually a fence post or tree stump. It perches there and plucks the prey before eating it.
  • Sparrowhawks are very strong birds which can carry prey as heavy as themselves.
  • A sparrowhawk can often be spotted in the fields by the crowd of small birds that gather and mob it in an attempt to drive it away from their nests.
  • The female lays between four and six bluishwhite eggs specked with brown. The eggs are incubated for about 35 days before they hatch. During incubation the male supplies the female with food. Both parents feed the nestlings for three weeks to a month before they leave the nest. The nestlings require a large quantity of food, as each one will eat two or three sparrow-sized birds every day. A sparrowhawk can often be spotted in the fi elds by the crowd of small birds that gather and mob it in an attempt to drive it away from their nests.
  • The sparrowhawk’s main diet consists of small birds such as sparrows, starlings, thrushes, and chaffinch, although it will occasionally take mice, voles and young rabbits. When there is a shortage of food it will even eat insects such as beetles.

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