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Sparrowhawk { Birds of Europe }

Updated on October 2, 2015

Eurasian Sparrowhawk

Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to commons by Bogbumper
Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to commons by Bogbumper | Source


The Sparrowhawk, {sometimes spelt Sparrow Hawk },Accipiter nisus belongs to the order of birds known as the Accipitriformes and the famaily Acciptridae within that order. The genus name of Accipiter derives from Latin and means hawk, {from accipere-to grasp} and the specific name of nisus is Latin word for the species Sparrowhawk.

In the UK they are Green listed meaning there are no current conservation concerns,with an estimated 33,000 pairs in summer. Here they are classed as a resident breeder and a passage winter visitor. 'nisus' is one of seven sub-species that occur in the world. They are also Green listed in Ireland. { source BTO}

In Europe they are classed as being secure,with an estimated total population of 180,000-270,000 pairs {summer}. Populations vary from country to country there follows a few selected examples.The Austrian population is estimated at between 6.000-8,000 Breeding pairs { BP},Belgium 3,000-4,000. BP.Croatia 5,000-7,000 BP. France 26,000-42,000,BP. Germany 14,400-21,000.BP. Russia {the whole of} 160,000-180,000,BP Sweden,15,000-20,000 BP. and Ukraine 4,500- 7,600 BP. { source Birdlife}.

They breed in Europe and north and central Asia and winter south to north Africa and southern Asia. They are birds of woodland both deciduous and coniferous.They are also found on farmland,scrub and around villages.

Yellow iris of a juvenile Sparrowhawk


Female American kestrel. Sometimes referred to as the American Sparrowhawk.

Image taken at Cincinnati Zoo {USA}
Image taken at Cincinnati Zoo {USA} | Source

What are Sparrowhawks ?

The name of Sparrowhawk has been applied to various species of small hawks in the genus Accipiter. The name was originally applied to our subject the Eurasian or 'Northern' Sparrowhawk to distinguish it from other species.

The other species include the Chestnut-flanked Sparrowhawk, Accipiter castanilius a bird of prey of Africa,the Collared Sparrowhawk, A. cirrocephalus of Australia and New Guinea,the Chinese Sparrowhawk,A.soleonsis which breeds in China,Tawain,Korea and Siberia, the Spot-tailed sparrowhawk, A.trinolatus which is endemic to Sulawesi in Indonesia.The Japanese Sparrowhawk, A.gularis which breeds in China,Japan,Korea and Siberia, the Levant Sparrowhawk, A.brevipes which breeds in Greece to the Balkans east to southern Russia and migrates to Egypt and south west Iran {they often migrate in large flocks.} The Little Sparrowhawk ,A.minullus of Africa. The Madagascan Sparrowhawk endemic to Madagascar ,this species is classed as Near threatened. and the Red thighed sparrowhawk,A.erythropes another African species.

The American kestrel is sometimes referred to as the American Sparrowhawk although this bird is a Falcon indeed it is the most common Falcon in North America. Here we review the Eurasian Sparrowhawk, A.nissus and as always we commence with a description of the species under review.

Sparrowhawk and habitat

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley.
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley. | Source

Description of Accipiter nissus

The female is up to 25% larger than the male,the largest difference in any bird,and it is thought to be that the more agile ,smaller male, is the most adapted to capture smaller birds. The male is about eleven and a half inches long {29 cm} to a foot long {30 cm }. The bill is light blue at the base,bluish black at the end. The cere is greenish yellow,iris bright yellow,the eye is protected above by a strong bony projection on which the feathers are partly white.

The feathers on the back of the head are white at the base ,and seen more or less as they are raised,giving that part an indistinct mark. The forehead and sides of the head are yellowish red. The neck pale red in front, the shafts dark. The chin and throat very pale or rusty yellowish red,each feather has five bands of white and six of pale red and dusky,shafts partly dark.

The breast as the throat,waved in bands,the shafts with two or three dark marks on the upper part,but without on the lower. The back,deep greyish blue,the shafts darker. The wings are a moderate length reaching beyond the middle of the tail and expanding in width to one foot eleven inches. The greater wing coverts are pale red barred with dusky brown.The primary feathers brownish tipped with dark grey,marked on the inner webs with dusky bands,the inner margins of which are reddish white,the bases are conspicuous on the undersides,the tips are darker than the rest. The secondary and tertiary feathers are marked as the primary feathers.

The tail is long,even and consists of twelve feathers which are rather wide and rounded with bluish grey feathers and has from three to six broad bands of a blackish brown colour. It is tipped with greyish white. The under tail coverts,reddish white barred with rufous brown. The feathers on the legs are barred with the same colour. The legs are light yellow,thin and long. The toes light yellow,the latter are also long,the middle one being remarkably so. The claws black,pale bluish at the base,they are very thin at the points.

The female is about one foot four inches long. The bill and cere as in the male. The iri,as in the male. The head and crown blackish grey,a white band passes from the forehead over each eye and runs into the white on the back of the neck. The neck and nape are brown,the shafts darker in front. The chin and throat reddish white with longitudinal lines of dark brown. The throat and breast reddish white transversely barred more or less clearly with dark brown,each feather having five bars.

In age the whole colouring approximates to that of the male,back rufous or greyish brown.The wings expand to about two feet and four inches +. Underneath they are pale grey,more or less tinged with rusty red,and barred with dark brown. The primary and secondary and tertiary feathers greyish black,obscurely barred on the outer webs with dark brown and spotted with two or more large yellowish white spots on the inner webs in the intervals,excepting towards the tips,greater and lesser wing coverts,as the breast,but the bars are broader.

The tail,which is brown, has four darker bars of the same on the middle feathers,and five on the side ones. Their edge is better defined on the lower than on the upper side,tips are whitish.The under tail coverts,white,with a few dark markings on the outer ones,as on the breast,but broader. The legs and feet yellow the claws black.

The Sparrowhawk is some times confused with the European Cuckoo which is very similar in plumage however, the latter has a straight and not hooked bill.

The European Cuckoo { above} mimics the Sparrowhawk


General and historical information

There is perhaps no bird of the hawk tribe more daring and spirited than the Sparrowhawk and next to the Kestrel ** it is probably the most common in the UK. It is remarkably similar but not anywhere near as large as the rarer Goshawk {see ID video below.}.

It hunts in large woods as well as in open fields and may frequently be observed sweeping over hedges and ditches as it surprises its prey,which,as its common name suggests is small birds,although the larger females will take larger birds such as the Common Wood pigeon.Notes from an eminent Scottish writer during the 1800's conveys " It will frequently attack in the most pugnacious manner even the monarch of the air -the Golden eagle,and as been known so far to obtain the mastery,as to make him drop a grouse which he had made a prize of. One has been seen after the first buffet,to turn again and repeat the insult,and another dashed in the same way at a tame Sea Eagle ** of R. Langtree, Esq,of Fort William"

The Sparrowhawk occasionally perches on some projection or eminence of earth,stone,or tree from where it keeps a sharp eye out for potential prey. If it should encounter a victim it darts off suddenly,otherwise it will become airborne in a more leisurely manner. When out in search of prey it swoops along apparently effortlessly,at speed but generally stealthily,at one moment gliding,then with rapid wing beats propels itself with amazing agility avoiding any obstacle with great skill.

Unlike the Kestrel which feeds on voles and mice the Sparrowhawk feeds almost exclusively on small birds. The male will readily take Sparrows,Tits,Bullfinch,Pipit,Thrush,Linnet,Yellowhammer and others of their ilk.Occasionally it will take voles,cockchaffers and other beetles.

Small birds are devoured whole,legs and all,while larger birds such as a pigeon are plucked before they are consumed. You may observe small birds 'mobbing' a Sparrowhawk,but they always keep at a respectable distance ,either a little above or a little below or immediately behind.

A writer of the 'Journal of a Naturalist' is on record describing the following situation-" A beautiful male Bullfinch **, that sat harmlessly pecking at buds of a Blackthorn by my side,when over looking the work of a labourer,suddenly uttered the instinctive moan of danger,but made no attempt to escape into a bush,seemingly deprived of the power of movement. On looking round a Sparrowhawk was observed,on motionless wings,gliding rapidly along the hedge,and passing me, rushed at its prey with undeviating certainty "

The males and females separate in winter.Females tend to stay in woodland and in the neighbourhood of farms,while the males tend to make their way to the coast following the flocks of small birds that gather in that location at that time of the year.

Some amazing filming of the British Sparrowhawk courtesy of Flint O' Neil. Standard You Tube license.

Sparrowhawk and captivity

In 1864, a young Sparrowhawk was procured and brought up by a person who was fond of rearing a particular breed of pigeon which he greatly prized on account of its rarity. The author of these notes stated- " By good management and kindness,he so far overcame the natural disposition of this hawk,that in time it formed a friendship with the pigeons,and associated with them."

" At first the pigeons were rather shy of meeting their natural enemy on such occasion, but they soon became familiarized,and approached without fear. It was curious to observe the playfulness of the hawk,and his perfect good humour during the feeding time,for he received his portion without any of the tenacity with which birds of prey usually take their food,and merely uttered a cry of lamentation when disappointed of his morsel."

" When the feast was over, he would attend the pigeons on their flights round and round the house and gardens and perch with them on the chimney top or roof of the house,and this voyage he never failed to take every morning ,when the pigeons took their daily exercise. At night he returned and rested with them in the Dove Cote,and though for some days after hid first appearance,he had it all to himself,the pigeons not liking such an intruder,they shortly became good friends,and he was never known to touch even a young one,unfledged.helpless and tempting as they must have been."

" He seemed quite unhappy at any separation from them, and when purposely confined in another abode,he constantly uttered melancholy cries,which was changed to tunes of joy and satisfaction on the appearance of any person with which he was familiar"

The narrator of the above concludes his account by adding " That he was as playful as a kitten and as loving as a Dove"

Goshawk and Sparrowhawk courtesy of the BTO. Standard YouTube license.

Eggs of the Sparrowhawk

Museum of Toulouse.
Museum of Toulouse. | Source

Breeding Nest and Eggs

When the locality of the nest has been chosen and even during its construction the birds may be seen soaring,though not very high, over the location darting and diving about. The nest,which has frequently been the tenement of a Crow or Magpie is built in fir trees or other trees or even in high bushes. They may also choose a location such as crevices or on ledges of rock and old ruins.

The nest is a large structure,flat in shape and composed of twigs,sometimes with,but more often without a lining of feathers,hair or grass. Sparrowhawks have also been known to eject a sitting tenant. I came across this statement made by Mr.Hewitson, an eminent observer of birds and their habits,he wrote " Falcons very rarely make a nest for themselves an action of ejectment is commenced in person against some other tenant at its own will of its own property- no notice to quit having been previously given,and, notwithstanding this legal defect,forcible possession proves to be nine points of the ,and,'contumely' is all the explanation that 'patient' merit of the unworthy takes"

The Sparrowhawk will make use of the nest of other birds but it is not uncommon for them to build their own. The female will deposit four to five eggs which are roundish in form and of a blue white colouring much blotted particularly at the base,with very deep reddish brown.They do tend to vary in their markings which in some instances are obscure and indistinct,and others the dark blotches are at the smaller end instead of the larger end.

The female will incubate the eggs for a period of about thirty three days. At first the male will provide the food but as the chicks get larger both parents will use all their time and energy supplying their offspring. At first the chicks are covered with a white or greyish white down.Even in the nest the females are distinguishable by their superior size. They are ready to leave the nest in a further twenty seven to thirty one days.

Young in nest

Forest Jungfernheide Berlin Germany
Forest Jungfernheide Berlin Germany | Source

Young birds

When fledged the bill is dusky brown at the tip and bluish at the base.The Cere is a greenish yellow,the iris light brown or orange. The head and neck,reddish brown,with some partly white feathers on the back of the latter. The breast reddish white with large oblong spots of a a dark brown colour,the middle of each feather being of that colour,transversely barred with yellowish red or light rust colour-the bars becoming by degrees narrower and brighter.

The back is reddish brown, the legs and toes,greenish yellow,tinged with blue.The wings and tail are a dark reddish brown then bluish grey,which becomes more pure as the bird advances with age. The tail has three dark brown bands.

The female is larger,she also has the partially white feathers on the back of the head. The breast is whiter than in the male,and the markings on it larger,the upper parts are browner.

Juvenile with kill

Originally posted on Flickr uploaded to Commons by Snowmanradio
Originally posted on Flickr uploaded to Commons by Snowmanradio | Source

** Denotes species already covered in this series.


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    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 2 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi DEb, I agree with you about the flight of raptors The Sparrowhawk is a joy to watch as stoops or flies alongside a hedgerow before darting over the other side. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      There is nothing as beautiful as the flight of a hawk, which to me is poetry in motion. I had heard about your Sparrowhawk, which I am finally happy to know a little about now.