Sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus) are the most common bird of prey to visit gardens across the UK – you may even catch a quick glimpse as they swoop down to raid chicks from the nests of birds such as sparrows, blackbirds, and blue tits.
But is it possible to tell whether it was a male or female bird involved in your backyard ambush? Our guide tells you everything you need to know to become an expert at distinguishing between male and female sparrowhawks.
Distinguishing between male and female sparrowhawks is fairly simple, as the sexes are different colours and different sizes. When looking at males and females side by side, there is little chance of confusion as to which is which.
Male sparrowhawks have slate-grey backs, and pale underparts barred with orange-red stripes. Females are in contrast dark brown, and their pale underparts are barred with brown. Male sparrowhawks are around the size of a Collared Dove, while females are significantly larger, heavier and with a wider wingspan.
Female sparrowhawks are around the size of woodpigeons. They have dark brown upperparts and pale underparts, banded with brown feathers. Females have a distinctive white stripe above the eye.
Female Eurasian sparrowhawks, like their male counterparts, have bright yellow legs, and both sexes have a yellow bill with a hooked black tip. An adult sparrowhawk’s eyes are a piercing bright yellow, but may become a darker orange-reddish shade with age, although a female’s are likely to retain more of a yellowish hue.
Both male and female juvenile sparrowhawks have dark brown upperparts, and appear similar to adult females, but the barring of their underparts is streaked and irregular on the breast.
Female Eurasian Sparrowhawk perched
Female sparrowhawks are called hens, while males are known as cocks.
Female sparrowhawks are around 25 percent larger than males and can weigh twice as much. Females can reach a length of 41 cm (16 in), while the maximum for males is 34 cm (13 in). A female sparrowhawk’s wingspan measures from 67 to 80 cm (26 to 31 in), while a male’s is between 59 and 64 cm (23 to 25 in).
A female Sparrowhawk in flight
There are marked differences between male and female sparrowhawks when it comes to diet and hunting, nest construction, roles taken in raising young, speed and agility, and even life expectancy. Most of these are directly or indirectly related to the difference in size between male and female birds.
Both male and female sparrowhawks are relatively quiet birds outside of breeding season and their calls can usually only be heard in the close vicinity to their nest sites. Its main call is a rapid chattering or shrill “kek-kek-kek-kek-kek-kek”. Nesting females and their young call for food with a high-pitched ‘piieh’ cry.
Female Sparrowhawk about to take off
Nests are constructed by both male and female sparrowhawks together over a period of several weeks, with the male doing the bulk of the work.
On average, females lay between 3 and 6 eggs, and have sole responsibility for incubation. While the female is incubating the eggs, she does not leave the nest, and is regularly brought food by her mate.
Hatching begins after around 32 days of incubation, with the female helping the chicks to break out of their eggs one by one, over a period of successive days. At first, the female sparrowhawk remains on the nest to protect the young hatchlings and keep them warm, while the male continues to hunt alone and bring food.
Once the nestlings have gained enough strength and resilience to be left unattended for short periods, female sparrowhawks leave the nest to hunt and will bring larger feeds back for the chicks, although the male will also continue to bring food too. Juvenile sparrowhawks are ready to fledge after 28 days (males) and 30 days (females), but continue to be fed by both parent birds for up to four weeks.
Female Sparrowhawk incubating her eggs in the nest
Due to their size, female sparrowhawks are capable of successfully hunting and catching larger birds than males. While males commonly prey on tits, finches and sparrows, females target more substantial birds such as starlings, thrushes, blackbirds, and even magpies and pigeons. The extra size and weight means that females move slower than males, so tend to hunt slower-moving birds.
Female sparrowhawks need to consume a larger amount of food each day than males do, with males needing between 40 to 50 g (1.4 to 1.8 oz) compared to 50 to 70 g (1.8 to 2.5 oz) that is required by females.
Female Sparrowhawk feeding on recently caught prey
The difference in size between male and female sparrowhawks has a direct influence on their mortality rates and ability to survive. Due to their larger size and greater reserves, females can go without food for longer periods, and can last for an estimated 7 days without eating, while average weight males would not be expected to last for more than 4 days.
Typically, female sparrowhawks have a longer life expectancy than males. Females live on average for 10 to 11 years, while males have an average lifespan of 7 to 8 years. More females than males survive beyond the first year of life.
Both parents take on an important share in chick-raising duties, and necessarily so to keep up with the young birds’ feeding demands. Female sparrowhawks depend on the males to hunt while they are incubating the eggs. Until chicks are old enough to be left, the male continues to bring food to the nest to feed the female and hatchlings.
A female Sparrowhawk perched on a branch in the woods
Female sparrowhawks do not have red tails. They are mostly brown, with greyish barring on their tails. Male sparrowhawks also do not have red tails, instead being a deep shade of grey, with darker brown barring on their tails. Birds of prey with reddish tail feathers include red kites and red-tailed hawks, although these are not resident in the UK.
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