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 Sparrowhawk - Fact File
Accipiter nisus
Widespread resident over all Britain and Ireland
Woods, wooded farmland and even parks in city centres.

Female much larger than male. Both are barred on the underparts, the male tinged with rufous. Males back bluish, while females is brown. Distinguished from Kestrel by it's rounded wings. Catches small birds in dashing low flight.

30 - 41cm (12 - 16")


During autumn migration sparrowhawks appear in small numbers along our coast. Examples have then been reported in Yarmouth cemeteries chasing tired migrants.

Ringing recoveries confirm that young sparrowhawks display a stronger migratory urge than adults. Some continental birds wintering here arrived in Scotland direct from Scandinavia; others enter East Anglia through Holland and Belgium.

When hunting, a sparrowhawk flies low beating along a hedgerow and seldom rising to do more than skim over to the far side. It will fly up a lane, frequently topping hedges ever searching for victims. It threads its way through woodland quickly but silently, dashing suddenly upon any unsuspecting birds.

About to perch, it will cross a field at a height of only a few feet before suddenly rising to a lofty branch when near the foot of a tree. It will pick out one bird from a flock and give chase, indifferent to the calls and mobbing flights of other birds.

Quarry is eaten on the ground or on a stump, the hawk standing with both feet on its victim, drooping wings to form a tent and spreading its tail as if to give support.

The sparrowhawk's prey extends to well over 120 bird species. In addition small mammals are taken. Among the victims recorded in recent issues of the Norfolk Bird Report are collared dove, stock dove, great spotted woodpecker (taken from a birdtable), snipe, sanderling, wood sandpiper, starling, snow bunting, ring ouzel and crossbill.

Several sparrowhawks may hunt over the same ground, although often at different times of day. Woodland roost-sites are liable to change every night, the hawks arriving and departing in near darkness.

Until the mid-1950s, the sparrowhawk was one of the commonest of our diurnal birds of prey. It could regularly be seen sailing overhead as it moved to a new hunting ground, or be glimpsed threading its way among the trees in a wood — rapidly but silently — looking for an unsuspecting bird.

The sparrowhawks suddenly declined, becoming almost rare in Norfolk and Suffolk. The cause was found to be acute poisoning as a result of preying on grain-eating birds which had been feeding on seed treated against insect pests.

Now, at long last, sparrowhawks have recovered. Each September I receive scores of sets of bird observations for inclusion in the annual Norfolk Bird Report. This volume is published by Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists' Society in conjunction with Norfolk Ornithologists' Association. And observer after observer has commented on the abundance once again of sparrowhawks. One correspondent reported six sightings over the centre of Norwich in 1991.

Female SparrowhawkLike all hawks, the often-secretive sparrowhawk is capable of bursts of high speed in flight. At the same time it is capable of great manoeuvrability. Both when circling or flying fast and low beating along hedgerows (continually skimming from one side to the other) flight is a series of quick flaps interspersed with glides.

The large tail enables it to twist and turn effortlessly in and out of cover. Most prey is taken in flight along regular routes although the hunter not infrequently surprises victims on the ground or about to take off.

No doubt the element of surprise plays a large part in their capture of prey, but sparrowhawks are capable of performing remarkable pursuits and captures of such fast-flying birds as the redshank. If the intended victim rises steeply, the hawk may turn upside down and seize it from below. If it takes to ground cover, pursuit may continue on foot.

Research reveals that males hunt more in woodlands; females more in fields and open areas.

In full pursuit the sparrowhawk can be extremely persistent, often getting into difficulties. It will blindly chase after its terrified quarry into a room, crash to death against a window, strike wires or become fatally wounded after crashing into a thick hedge or bush.

By Michael J. Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.