One of the highlight’s of 2020 for me has been sharing time with a new Sparrowhawk family that live nearby and visited my garden, on an almost daily basis
Sparrowhawks, or to be accurate ‘Accipiter hawks’ are short winged birds of prey. Sparrowhawks are perfectly adapted for rapid manoeuvring in woodlands which are their main habitat.
Sparrowhawks are sexually dimorphic – the male and female are differing sizes and colours. Female Sparrowhawks are around 25% larger than the males. During the mating season the male’s are naturally cautious, as they are well within the prey range of the female and it is not unknown for male Sparrowhawks to be predated by the females at this time.
Sparrowhawks are small, short winged raptors with long tails. Mature adults have piercing amber coloured eyes and thin, yellow legs. Female Sparrowhawks have brownish – grey backs and wings, and for those who love detail, a larger white line above their eyes, whilst the smaller male is slate grey. The Male’s barring on the chest and underbody is much finer than that of the female. To me it always looks like they are wearing ‘stripey’ pyjamas.
Back in the early spring, I spotted the female Sparrowhawk in my garden. She was perched on a branch in the conifers that divide my garden from the neighbours. She was preening herself, presumably having just had a meal.
A couple of days later, I noticed the usual cacophony of sound from the local sparrows stopped as they all quickly dived into the hedges around the garden. I looked around and saw a male Sparrowhawk, perched high in the apple tree and beautifully silhouetted against the morning sky.
This was really exciting. I knew by the amber yellow eyes of both birds they were both mature. Sparrowhawks will usually breed the year after hatching. Younger birds have greenish-yellow eyes and older birds eyes resemble the colour of a blood orange.
Sparrowhawks nest between May and July. They prefer to nest in dense woodlands, although they have adapted to live in parks, small coppices and larger gardens. Sparrowhawk nests are not pretty. A random collections of sticks and small branches, strung between a pair of branches, often high in the tree canopy.
Sparrowhawks will lay 4 to 5 eggs that they incubate for 33 days. The chicks usually fledge from 27 to 31 days later. The Male will do all the hunting whilst the female is incubating the eggs.
I located David and Victoria’s nest in a small area of woodland, on the edge of a former arable field, about two minutes walk from my house. It was around 12-15 metres from the ground and the expected mix of sticks and twiggy branches. I found the nest by watching where the birds were flying and finding discarded feathers on the ground. Over the following month I checked the nest daily whilst taking my lockdown exercise. During the second week, I noticed Victoria was staying on the nest more and began the incubation countdown.
During this time, David spent 12 to 15 hours a day away from the nest, hunting to feed Victoria and himself. He relies upon his speed, agility and the element of surprise to catch smaller songbirds such as sparrows and blue tits. If you have ever observed Sparrowhawks hunting you will know they use regular routes that provide them with hedges, fences or even a shed.
Sparrowhawks are regularly seen in gardens with good populations of small birds. A popular feeding station for garden birds will be an obvious attraction to them. That’s why I was seeing David hunting in my garden. He arrived late morning on a daily basis.
I have a large population of sparrows that nest in the roof of my house, getting in under the ridge in the tiles and creating a labyrinth of tunnels and nesting chambers. Outside, I have a number of blue tits nesting, some in boxes, others in the crevices of the older trees and even some under the eves of the shed.
It was easy to tell when David had arrived as the cacophony of sound the sparrows make from dawn to dusk, would suddenly go silent as they frantically took cover in the hedges and shrubs. The crab apple tree was a popular hiding place for them, but David soon realised this and could take the sparrows from the outer branches or even in mid air with some ease. That said, only around 10% of Sparrowhawk hunting flights are successful. David Peckham instinctively used a variety of hunting techniques that are typical of sparrowhawks – the characteristically, flying fast and low along the garden hedge line on my neighbour’s side, before flipping over the top to surprise his prey. One one occasion, he came over the garden gate and skimmed so close to me that I could feel the breeze as he flew past my head at high speed.
Where the sparrows instantly go silent, the blue tits often make a specific call. It’s clearly identifiable as an alarm call warning of the Sparrowhawks presence and I have noted blackbirds and pigeons reacting to it as well. This appears to be a universal warning to all birds.
Due to their size, Male sparrowhawks are more likely to hunt the smaller garden birds, such as sparrows. Tits,and finches Despite their name sparrows are not always the main prey of sparrowhawks, they will take any small bird species. The larger female’s are able to take larger species, such as wood pigeons, doves and even magpies. Sparrowhawks have long talons and typically take prey in a twisting motion with the talons making an instant kill. They will then land and pluck the prey. This looks like a frantic stomping frenzy, but is in reality a very efficient process with the precision use of beak, talons and toes. Evidence of this is the fairy ring of discarded feathers. It has been known for Female sparrowhawks to drown their larger prey such as magpies and wood pigeons although I have never seen this.
In early July, I noticed that Victoria had begun to leave the nest along with David to go hunting for the new family. I began to spend more time watching the nest. I had spotted the white downy feathered chicks on a number of occasions, but couldn’t be sure how many were in the nest. Both parents spent the majority of the day hunting and I could observe the nest for up to three hours a day after work in the early evening. Over a few days I was able to see the nest had four chicks. This worked out well for me having named them parents after ‘the Beckham’s’ and the chicks immediately were named after their children, as Brooklyn, Harper, Romeo and Cruz (OK, I had to look this up!)
Over the next month I was able to watch the chicks grow and their white down turn into brown feathers with the beautiful chestnut edges. The stripey patterns on their chest are very tightly barred together and their greeny yellow eyes almost clash with the bright yellow legs.
Around the middle of August, Brooklyn and Romeo were noticeably more active and had begun to venture out of the nest. Their loud calling for their parents now making the nest easy to locate simply by following the sound. A week later and Harper and Cruz were exploring out of the nest and all four chicks were exercising their wings by flapping them. It was fascinating to observe them developing their balance as their tail feathers began to grow. The wing beating almost as vital as eating and sleeping in their lives now.
Just before the August bank holiday, Brooklyn fledged the nest. She was never far away but had ventured to the surrounding trees. On the bank holiday Sunday Romeo fledged, followed about four hours later by Harper. Throughout this time David and Victoria were both regularly returning to the nest with a constant supply of food. I had noted the majority were sparrows and blue tits, but I had seen two blackbirds before seeing Victoria arrive with a dove, that provided a large meal for all four chicks. Cruz was the last to fledge on the bank holiday Monday afternoon. All the chicks were still reliant on their parents for food and would be for another four to six weeks.
Although today, Sparrowhawks are widespread that hasn’t always been the case. The Victorian landowners used to shoot them as “Trophies” for display in their taxidermy cabinets whilst gamekeepers shot them as pests on a regular basis. This reduced Sparrowhawk populations throughout the UK for many decades, in fact, it was only the reduction in Game shooting during the second world war that saw Sparrowhawk numbers begin to recover.
Sadly, the recovery was short lived as the widespread use of organochlorine pesticides (such as DDT), during the 1950’s and 1960s caused sparrowhawks, among many other native species a huge range of problems.
The organochlorine pesticides that had built up in the sparrowhawks bodies, through them eating infected mammals and birds caused they’re eggshells to thin, leading to cracking and splitting, rendering the eggs unviable. The Sparrowhawk population in the UK crashed throughout the 1950s and they almost became locally extinct in the east of England, where DDT usage was at its highest.
The British Sparrowhawk population only began to recover after the organochlorine chemicals were banned in the early 1970s, following an outcry from the public in the UK, and indeed, throughout much of the world. It took the East of England Sparrowhawk and additional decade to recover, and breeding did not recommence until the early 1980s.
Sparrowhawk numbers recovered throughout the 1980s to an estimated population of around 32,000 breeding pairs, but tragically, this recovery was short lived, with Sparrowhawk populations declining in some regions primarily due to lose of habitat and food source, in addition, to another rise in persecution. This set about a further two decades of decline with surveys showing numbers of breeding pairs dropping annually right through until 2008.
Some people were concerned that sparrowhawks were predating to many garden or song birds and they were associated particularly in the decline of the sparrow population. It’s worth noting that scientific studies have never supported this idea, in fact, they show the correlation between songbird and Sparrowhawk populations remains consistent with no long term impact on songbird populations. When the Sparrowhawk population was decimated by DDT in the 1950s and 1960s, songbird populations remained unchanged.
Small bird species such as sparrows, tits and finches will typically rear between 5 and 15 chicks per year. The reason these species rear so many young is an evolutionary adaption because, in the absence of predators, many of these chicks will not survive, primarily through starvation and disease. There simply wouldn’t be enough nest holes, caterpillars or habitat to support the huge increase in numbers. Scientific studies by the BTO and others, over many years indicate that in order to keep songbird populations stable as few as two of these chicks need to survive. In our gardens, we can help by creating a diverse habitat of trees, hedges and shrubs. These provide safe food and safe hiding and nesting places for songbirds.
Sparrowhawks now have few natural predators in most of the UK. They are predated by Goshawks and Pine Marten, but these species are no longer widespread enough in the UK to cause any major population problems.
The most common thing I’m asked is how do you identify a Sparrowhawk because hawks and falcons look similar, particularly in flight. For me, the species most often identified incorrectly, isn’t in fact a hawk. Cuckoo’s have very similar colouring and are roughly the same same size as a female Sparrowhawk. Cuckoo’s also fly in a very similar way to sparrowhawks. They are of course non native, migrating to the UK from Africa to lay their eggs in the nest of others leaving the chicks to be raised by them.
Goshawks have similar markings and share the woodland habitat. A male Goshawk is around the size of a female Sparrowhawk (around 37cm) whilst the male Sparrowhawk is noticeably smaller at around 30-33 cm. Goshawks hunt in dense woodland and have not adapted to hunt in gardens.
Kestrels share a similar outline and profile. A Kestrel is around the size of a male Sparrowhawk. Kestrel’s do sometimes feed in gardens but tend to be found over grass and heathland, where they hunt voles and small mammals. The clearest indication is eye colour. Kestrel’s all have dark eyes.
So what about ‘the Peckham’s’ – Well, I’m delighted to say that all four chicks fledged successfully. They will have flown away to establish their own territories, which can be several miles away. David, as is common for male sparrowhawks has flown away from the territory and will spend the winter months alone, hunting when the weather allows. Victoria has stayed close to home and can be seen throughout her territory on a regular basis. She still visits the garden on occasions, but will not be feeding everyday now, she will rely on her fat reserves to help her through the shorter, colder winter days.
David and Victoria have both survived their first year. Once a Sparrowhawk makes it to adulthood they have a survival rate of 69% and live, for an average of four years, according to the RSPB. In the Spring I hope that David will return and that he and Victoria will once again breed and successfully raise their chicks.