Sparrowhawks – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

sparrowhawkSparrowhawks are by far the most common  bird of prey you are  likely to see in your garden although with the speed they move it is more often than not just a blur of wings,  The reason for this is that the bird will mainly be hunting small birds such as chaffinches and  its hunting technique is to surprise such small prey.   The sparrowhawk needs the element of surprise  to get advantage over its prey.  They will often take a regular route through a garden using the cover of a hedge or a garden shed to get close to the feeding birds. Then suddenly, often with a flick of the wings, it will turn  and take a bird.  The type of prey very much depends on whether the sparrowhawk is a male or female as there is a great deal of difference in their size.   The female is by far the largest being roughly twice the weight of the smaller males.   The males normally take small birds such chaffinches, yellowhammers and great tits whilst the larger females will take blackbirds and starlings and may even take larger birds such as woodpigeons.   This is a reflection of the role of the two sexes in the breeding season  when the male has to be more agile in taking birds as he is the main provider.  The female has the egg laying and incubation to take into account.

There has always been a great deal of controversy over the effect the sparrowhawk has on the number of small birds in the garden.   A great deal of  research has been carried out,  particularly  by the British Trust for Ornithology, and the overall opinion is that they have  little or no affect.  The reason for this is that the birds they take as prey are either birds in poor condition or birds that will die anyway for various  reasons  such as the amount of overall food available.   The problem is that many of us are garden birdwatchers and to see a siskin, for example, being torn apart by a sparrrowhawk is emotional.    If this gets too much then  one thing you can do is to move the feeding station around the garden every so often.  This means that the sparrowhawk does not have the same flight pattern to use.  On the other hand think of the sparrowhawk chicks in the nests waiting to be fed.  It is swings and roundabouts.

Interestingly the success of the  sparrowhawk’s  hunting is fairly low and the bird in the photograph is  a good example.  It is a young male bird and it had gone for a group of house sparrows that had fled into a large bush.  The sparrowhawk  even went into the  bush and I could see him diving in between the branches trying to get its quarry, to no avail.    In the end it dropped to the ground and looked thoroughly  confused.  It was  good chance to photograph it and see the salient features.    One is the surprisingly  long yellow legs and the long  grey tail crossed with 4-5 dark bars.   The fierce expression on its face  is marked and you can see the start of the white eye stripe.   There are thought to be around 10,000 breeding pairs in Scotland which is a dramatic increase after much   persecution in the early 1900s.  However, there has now been a modest decline especially in intensively farmed areas.   As with other birds of prey there is still an element of illegal persecution especially where pheasants and partridges are introduced for shooting