Birds in Sulgrave – July

SPARROWHAWK (Accipiter nisus)

There was a time, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the sparrowhawk population crashed because of the use in agriculture of organo-chlorine pesticides. Following the banning of these products, numbers of this bird have steadily increased, and this predator is now quite common in our area.

The female sparrowhawk is noticeably larger than the male. Both birds have grey backs; the underparts are heavily barred, the female in grey, the male with a rufous tinge. The yellow legs are quite long, as is the tail. The wings are broader than those of falcons such as the kestrel, which are sharply pointed. The flight usually consists of a few quick wingbeats followed by a short glide.

As the name implies, the sparrowhawk’s diet comprises almost exclusively birds, of all sizes from the smallest up to, say, pigeon-size. This has caused the bird to be widely accused of the decline in the numbers of many of our songbirds. In fact, these also declined, indicating that other factors such as the use of pesticides and the destruction of habitat are more likely causes. Moreover, studies have shown that some of the sparrowhawk’s favourite prey, such as the robin, the great tit, the greenfinch and the collared dove, have in fact increased in numbers alongside the sparrowhawk. Why, then, is it so vilified?

No doubt it is upsetting to see this efficient predator snatch “our” robin from the bird table, but that’s nature. After all, it seems that we love owls, and admire the peregrine, which, like the sparrowhawk, have to kill in order to survive. Sentiment has little place in nature’s scheme of things!

See Bird Archive for other birds in this series.

Text: George Metcalfe.  Photograph: John Sheppard.


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