By Charlotte Owen
Feeding the birds is a great thing to do and lots of us love to do it, putting out a selection of seeds and nuts to encourage garden favourites. But not all our feathered friends eat seeds, and sometimes it’s a bird-eat-bird world.
Viewed by some as the bane of the bird table, the Sparrowhawk is a specialist bird hunter. All the small birds we encourage in our gardens, whose populations are bolstered by supplementary feeding, in turn provide food for the ultimate back garden bird of prey.
Sparrowhawks are ambush predators, relying on the element of surprise. They are experts at appearing out of nowhere for a sudden attack, breaking cover with explosive acceleration in an attempt to snatch a surprised snack. Blink and you’ll miss it – but studies show that only one in ten hunts is successful. Their long, yellow talons extend their reach, helping them grasp their target, but should they miss they are swift and agile enough to pursue their quarry through the shrubbery, between branches and over fences. They are adapted to hunt in woodland, breezing through twisting tree limbs and folding in their wings to zip through the tiniest of gaps in a high stakes, high speed chase. Leafy gardens can be ideal hunting grounds for this apex predator, and if you’re lucky enough to see one it’s a positive sign that your local bird populations are thriving. It can be upsetting to witness a successful hunt but it’s all part of the natural food web, and Sparrowhawks rarely put much of a dent in their much more numerous prey populations.
Males are smaller than females, so they focus on smaller birds like sparrows, tits and finches. His adult plumage is distinctly different too, being slate grey above in contrast to the female’s brown, with an orange flush to his barred chest. Females are 25% bigger and twice the weight of males, trading agility for the power to tackle larger prey like doves, pigeons and magpies. Both sexes have piercing yellow eyes and really are a sight to behold – a taste of the wild in suburban Sussex.