Flap, flap, glide; the soaring sparrowhawk

28 September 2016 | Posted in Sue Curnock , Birds
Flap, flap, glide; the soaring sparrowhawk
sparrowhawk / Neil Fletcher

By Sue Curnock

Seeing a sparrowhawk is something really special. These magnificent birds of prey are adapted to hunt smaller birds in confined spaces, twisting between the trees like an arrowhead. They are extremely agile, flying fast and low against vegetation to remain hidden from their target for as long as possible.

There are marked differences between the sexes: Females are 25% bigger and have a grey-brown back with brown barring on their chest, while the male’s plumage is grey-blue with orangey brown barring on the chest and orange-brown cheeks. Both sexes have bright yellow legs and eyes and dark barring across the tail.

Unfortunately sparrowhawks have had a tough time in recent centuries due to persecution from trophy hunters and gamekeepers. Numbers recovered slightly during the 1940s, but crashed again in the 60s and 70s due to the widespread use of pesticides such as DDT. These caused a number of problems including thinning of egg shells which meant females often cracked their own eggs as they tried to incubate them. Their numbers began to recover once these harmful chemicals were banned and there is now a good breeding population in Sussex.

Some people are concerned that sparrowhawks are causing the decline in some songbirds, but there is really no evidence to support this. In fact, if you do see one it means there must be good numbers of small birds thriving in the area. As a top predator, sparrowhawk numbers are controlled by the availability of their prey, not the other way around.

Smaller birds tend to rear between five and 15 young in a season. Only two need to survive to breed the next year to keep the population stable and in the absence of predators, many of them will die of disease or starvation. On average, only one in ten sparrowhawk hunts is successful; their arrival is heralded by a wave of agitated twittering as smaller birds flee to safety. They prefer to go for sick or injured birds which are much easier to catch. Only birds that are the fittest and best at avoiding capture survive to successfully breed, so natural predators are an important factor in keeping a population healthy.


  • Alison Risby:

    25 Jan 2020 14:35:00

    Think I’ve just seen a small bird of prey take down a feral pigeon, absolutely gob-smacked as in Brighton city centre. Is anyone able to confirm whether there are sparrowhawks in Brighton, please?

  • Jennifer:

    30 Mar 2020 19:22:00

    @Alison Risby: I just saw a dead one in Queen’s Park today, so they’re definitely around!

  • Stephen Williams:

    30 Mar 2020 22:31:00

    I’m pretty sure I saw one chasing a pigeon today in Hollingdean.

  • Diane Neeser:

    12 Apr 2020 16:04:00

    I had a sparrowhawk in my garden yesterday 11-04-20 around dusk. It captured a starling and brought it down onto my patio. I managed to get a photo through the glass so sadly not that clear. Beautiful bird.

  • Richard:

    13 Apr 2020 20:28:00

    Pretty sure I have just witnessed one take a blackbird in Preston Park, Brighton, at dusk.

  • Caroline:

    17 Apr 2020 20:52:00

    We are pretty sure we saw one kill a blackbird in Haywards Heath town centre today, 10am. We thought it might be a cuckoo but I’m pretty sure cuckoos don’t eat blackbirds?

  • Eve Clark:

    18 Apr 2020 11:16:00

    Had a sparrowhawk on my garden fence in Goring by sea yesterday- 17th April. Sure she came to wish me a happy 70th birthday! Sat for about 10 minutes, what a treat!

  • Philippa Schofield:

    28 Aug 2020 08:38:00

    Saw one on my garden fence in centre of Brighton ( near train station) on Wednesday 26th of August – beautiful bird

  • Paul Brown:

    12 Mar 2021 15:39:00

    Have seen a sparrow hawk twice today take a sparrow from my back garden in Kemptown

  • Tony Farhall:

    25 May 2021 19:38:00

    Had a male Sparrow Hawk young fledgling in our back garden this evening 18:00
    Sat watching the tits at the bird feeder for 10 minutes.

  • 10 Sep 2021 15:49:00

    Walking my son to school and he pointed one out sitting in a tree just above the pavement. Close enough for me to get a photo with my phone. There’s a cemetery near by with several bird feeders – probably a good hunting ground!

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