Updated: Jun 26, 2019
Over half of adults in the UK feed birds in their garden. This hugely beneficial activity supplements the diet of many garden birds throughout the year. This is not only very satisfying to watch; it has a valuable knock-on effect on surrounding wildlife. One bird that does incredibly well as a result is the sparrowhawk.
While it may be shocking to some, witnessing a sparrowhawk swooping down to catch a blue tit or chaffinch is one of the most thrilling garden spectacles you can see. A calculated assassin, the sparrowhawk will ensure it is only seen at the last second before it strikes its unsuspecting victim.
Since bird-feeding was popularised in the mid-late 20th century, sparrowhawk populations have benefited hugely. They’ve become a common garden bird with roughly 35,000 breeding pairs in the UK; they are especially common in the winter when songbirds rely more heavily on feed. Over 120 different species have been recorded as being predated by a sparrowhawk, and some even hunt bats! Sparrowhawks are courageous hunters, taking anything from jackdaws and magpies (which have themselves been known to kill sparrowhawks) to catching agile coastal birds in flight. Before a hunt, sparrowhawks calculate every possible entry route to determine the best angle to fly from, often using hedges as cover before diving over to pluck a small bird mid-air. Their relatively small wingspan and long, rudder-like tail means they are astonishingly agile as they move through dense woodland. Once its prey is seized it is taken to a feeding post and devoured in private.
While they may seem to have a vicious nature, sparrowhawks are great parents, brooding the chicks several weeks after they’ve hatched to keep them warm. This is the time that many other birds fledge their nests, meaning there is plenty of food to catch. The male provides all food for both the young and the female while they’re in the nest, unless he is unable to catch sufficient quantities, at which point the female joins in the hunting. Like most birds of prey, males and females differ in size. The female is a third larger than the male and therefore able to catch larger prey if it’s available.
I personally think having a sparrowhawk in your garden is such a treat. It’s a little glimpse into the wild when this scowling, bar-bellied hunter drops in to say hello and lets everybody know whose boss!
Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s South Walney Nature Reserve near Barrow-in-Furness has a resident sparrowhawk that can be seen all over the reserve, from the car park to the beach. For details and location of the nature reserve, go to www.cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk
Words by Cumbria Wildlife Trust Apprentice, Isaac Johnston
Photo by Amy Lewis
First published December 3rd 2017.