Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Irish Garden Birds - Stunning Sparrowhawk!

Species Profile: Sparrowhawk

As Gaeilge: Spioróg

Irish Garden Bird Survey Ranking 2016/17: 25th place

Conservation status: Green-listed in Ireland and 'secure' at European level.

Male Sparrowhawk. Photo by Tom Ormond

Did You know?
  1. Sparrowhawks hunt by surprise-attack - deftly gliding over hedgerows and between trees to almost appear out of nowhere, snatch their prey, and often leave again in a hurry. They were traditionally a woodland bird, so they're well adapt to very accurate flight between trees in heavily wooded areas.
  2. Female sparrowhawks are around a third bigger than the males. As a result, the females hunt larger prey like Starlings, Thrushes, Blackbirds and Pigeons, whereas the males will go for smaller birds such as Tits, Finches and Sparrows.
  3. Despite their hunting expertise, Sparrowhawks are only successful in around 10% of hunting attempts!
  4. Cuckoos have evolved to look like Sparrowhawks from a distance - with similar colours, similar barring on the chest, and an in-flight appearance that can appear like a Sparrowhawk at a glance. This helps the Cuckoo to scare away the nesting songbirds so they can lay their eggs in their nest. In different parts of the world, the local cuckoo species usually bears a resemblance to the local small hawk species.
  5.  In medieval falconry, the sparrowhawk was deemed to be a bird for a priest.. In falconry the male spar has long been known as the musket. The name was later used for the small handgun used by soldiers (hence musketeers).
Juvenile Sparrowhawk. Photo by Ulrike Schwier

How long do they live?
The oldest known Sparrowhawk in Ireland and Britain was 17 years, 1 months and 11 days old – very unfortunately hit by a car in Hampshire, 49km from where it was ringed as a nestling. Their typical lifespan is around 4 years.

A study in Scotland suggested that young males have a tougher time in terms of survival, which can be linked to their smaller size and diet of smaller birds - they can "last less long between meals" than the females which have a higher average weight and feed on larger prey. It was estimated that a female Sparrowhawk could last up to 7 days without feeding, but a male could only last 4 days.

Male Sparrowhawk hiding kill under water. Photo by Shay Connolly

What do they feed on? 

Sparrowhawks are built to catch small and medium sized birds. The males go for smaller birds like Tits, Finches, Sparrows etc., and the females will go for larger species like Starlings, Thrushes, Blackbirds and even Pigeons. The odd time they will take other prey, including bats and dragonflies! 

Male Sparrowhawk with Blackbird prey. Photo by Kurt Kullmann

Female Sparrowhawk with Pigeon Prey. Photo by Sean O'Rourke 

Irish Garden Bird Survey Trends:

Sparrowhawk. Photo by John Fox
Since the mid-1990's Sparrowhawks have been amazingly consistent in the Irish Garden Bird Survey - ranking somewhere between 24th and 30th place. Don't forget their entire strategy is to move quickly around the place, and to stay out of sight until the very last second when they pounce on their prey. So with that in mind, we're doing well to record them in around a third of gardens each winter! 

Even if you are lucky enough to have one in your garden, they're not a species you're likely to see every week. Looking at results week-to-week, only around 1 in 10 gardens record a Sparrowhawk on any given week during the survey.

Movements and Migration:

A lot of the species we've covered in the blog this winter show some sort of seasonal movement, moving from the cold parts of Northern Europe to winter further south and west in Central Europe, Ireland and Britain. It won't surprise you to hear that Sparrowhawks do the same. After all, if many of the Finches and other garden birds have left northern Europe, then there's not going to be anything left for the Sparrowhawks to hunt

Sparrowhawks from Britain and Ireland caught elsewhere in Europe. See for more details

I hope you've learned something new about Sparrowhawks through this species profile - if there's a species you'd like us to cover later in the winter please let us know 
on facebook or twitter, and let us know if you've been lucky enough to spot this fantastic predator in your survey yet this winter! 

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