The Sparrowhawk: Killer in the Garden
We humans love to anthropomorphise nature, we assign roles and characters to our animal companions, e.g. foxes are wily and cunning, while eagles and lions are regal and majestic; but what about the Eurasian Sparrowhawk a medium sized raptor common right across Europe and Asia. Well, they would be the executioners, as they feed on small birds and nothing else. Their lives depend on dealing out death on a daily basis and each death usually comes after a high speed chase. As humans, we look on and are appalled that such sweet creatures like songbirds have to suffer such a fate, but another part of our psyche is intrigued by the sheer drama of it all.
The small birds that inhabit our gardens, are of course fast and highly mobile prey, and do everything in their power to avoid being caught. They take care themselves; they rarely ever drop their guard. If you observe a small bird like a robin coming to the bird table, they’re constantly checking their surroundings, remaining ever vigilant. Some small birds keep together in flocks, so that many pairs of eyes can look for danger simultaneously. The small birds even have solidarity in the form of high pitched alarm calls which they emit frantically if they suspect a threat is near. In order to survive, the garden’s avian executioner, the sparrowhawk must overcome all of these obstacles, otherwise it will starve.
The Hunter's Mate
The Hunt on Film Narrated by David Attenborough
Preparing the strike begins in a hiding place, some distance from a potential meal. It sits perfectly still, usually in tree, maintaining a rigid silence. From a high vantage point, they’ll maintain a close vigil of the neighbourhood below, monitoring bird movements closely. Being a hawk, its eyesight is exceptional, able to pick out even the smallest details from a fair distance. As soon as a flock gathers on the lawn, or if there’s a burst of activity on the feeders then the hawk’s curiosity is aroused. If nothing happens though, then it will switch to another perch to gain a new perspective, by doing this it may be able to focus on a different set of targets.
Once a target has been selected the sparrowhawk makes its final preparations. It’ll bob its head down a few times to gauge the distance, and then without a sound launch into flight. A combination of gravity and a few flaps of its powerful wings help to accelerate it to a dizzying speed towards its victim, all the while it retains an almost trance like gaze on its quarry. In its final approach, it will level out; make any sort of necessary adjustments before plunging dramatically towards its prey.
Those last few seconds are the most unpredictable and dangerous part of the whole hunt. Rarely does a sparrowhawk’s target meet with death instantly. Instead of a quick, almost peaceful death, there is always a last second panic flight and evasive manoeuvre. It’s important to note that birds have lightning reactions and the hawk’s main challenge is to snuff out any attempt to escape, at whatever cost. In these crucial last moments, it will abandon all caution and follow its prey focused beyond all distraction. Should the quarry even have the slightest brush with its razor sharp claws, then it will sustain mortal damage, thus signalling the end of the hunt. But often the chase runs its the full course aerially; although sometimes the quarry will go to the ground, with the hawk giving chase on foot.
The final act of a chase is intended to be fatal for the quarry of course. But it also poses considerable risk for the predator as well. The problem lies with the sparrowhawk’s unerring determination in following a moving target, the hunter has tunnel vision, the rest of its surroundings reduced to a mere blur. It’s similar to a cat and mouse on a human road where the belligerents temporarily forget both their safety and sanity, lost in the thrill of pursuit. Sparrowhawks, themselves often fall victim to obstacles such as windows where they often knock themselves senseless. Unfortunately many perish this way; equally unfortunately others end up injured and suffer the agony of a slow death from starvation. Some sparrowhawks have flown through open doors and become trapped inside rooms; others have collided directly with us, whilst more have met their end by striking overheard wires or cars during their adrenaline fuelled chases.
Eyes of a Killer
While, it certainly seems so, these remarkable birds are not the maniacs of the avian world; instead they are equivalent of stuntmen. They don’t rush blindly into a chase, while they often leave thoughts of safety behind as they close in on the strike, they do plan for a smooth operation beforehand, and must hope, at least figuratively that it will all turn out well. It’s important to remember while the intense stare of the sparrowhawk seems to mark it out as a psychotic killer, behind the perceived madness is the mind of a master strategist and tactician.
There is compelling evidence that these birds actually somehow plan out their routes in advance, although they don’t go as far as calculating speed and distance between launch and collision. They’ve even been observed flying along a potential course, from time to time in order to learn all of the different twists and turns. This may sound quite far-fetched but sparrowhawks do live in certain areas for long periods, thus making this forward planning possible. It’s likely they develop a map of their home range in their brains by rote.
After the Kill
Astonishing Film Showing a Sparrowhawk Drowning a Magpie
The Key to Success
For the sparrowhawk, the key to a successful capture is a concealed approach, this factor above all else will determine an individual’s favourite striking sites. To be a successful hunter, they must seek those places where small birds might be a little more vulnerable to stealth attack than elsewhere. Open ground close to cover is prime striking territory. In the countryside, one regular tactic employed is to accelerate along one side of a hedge, then flip over the top and make a grab with an outstretched talon. In the town, they will often come upon their prey from a neighbouring garden, keeping nice and low before looping over a fence. Sparrowhawks will make use of any obstacle for concealment, including a tree, a house, a car, even the clothes on a washing line. If you go out into the garden to put food on the bird table you may inadvertently present yourself as an obstacle that a sparrowhawk could use for an ambush.
Some sparrowhawks are eerily cunning and versatile. There are reports of them flying alongside moving cars, using them as a sort of mobile hedge, before flipping over the bonnet. On other occasions they have been observed grabbing birds literally just after the latter has struck a window in a desperate, panicked escape flight. They’ve also been observed utilising garden ponds to drown slightly bigger birds such as magpies and they even attack birds which have become temporarily cornered in a squirrel-proof bird feeder. This is all the more remarkable because these specialised feeders haven’t been around for long, but in a short time these versatile hunters have seized upon the opportunities they provide.
In many gardens, the sparrowhawk is not popular. People don’t like the idea of small and cute songbirds lending themselves to a ruthless executioner. But many may quietly admit a grudging respect for the stealth, speed and cunning of the hunter. It’s also worth remembering that if you do have a resident sparrowhawk, it means that you have a fully healthy garden with a thriving ecosystem, culminating in the hawk who acts as the apex predator; they play a vital role in controlling the numbers of birds, and weeding out the weaker individuals, thus boosting the overall health of all the species in the garden, including themselves of course.