Common Kestrel or Eurasian Sparrowhawk (How to Tell the Difference)

Posted on: 29 September 2021

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Common Kestrel or Eurasian Sparrowhawk (How to Tell the Difference)

The Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) and Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) are two fairly widespread species of birds found in the UK and across most parts of Eurasia. They live in similar habitats and from afar can be hard to distinguish, so what are the key differences between a kestrel and a sparrowhawk?

Generally speaking, the best way to tell the difference between Kestrels and Sparrowhawks is their plumage. Sparrowhawks have a plumage that overall appear more greyish, whereas Kestrels have a warmer looking plumage consisting mainly of buff and browns. In flight, the shape and colour of the tail is an excellent way to identify each bird, as sparrowhawks have a more 'V' shaped tail with broad dark bands equal in width. The tail of a kestrel is much more rounded and fan-shaped when compared to a sparrowhawk. Male kestrels only have one dark band at the end, and females and juveniles have many narrow bands.

These are not the only ways to tell the difference between both birds, so continue reading for some more ways to differentiate between sparrowhawks and the common kestrel.

Kestrel in flight

Kestrel in flight, from below

Sparrowhawk in flight

Sparrowhawk in flight, from below

Which is bigger, a kestrel or a sparrowhawk?

Both kestrels and sparrowhawks, on average, are highly similar in size. Still, if you compare the average length and weight, sparrowhawks are usually slightly larger, although the difference is negligible and only by around 5cm and 40 grams.

In both species, and like all birds of prey, females are larger than males.

European Kestrel measurements

  • On average, kestrels have lengths between 27 and 35cm.
  • Male kestrels weigh between 136 and 252 grams, and females 154 to 314 grams.
  • The wingspans of kestrels vary between 57 and 79cm, with females usually nearer the higher end of the range.

Sparrowhawk measurements

  • Sparrowhawks are on average between 28 and 40cm in length
  • Male sparrowhawks weigh between 105 and 196 grams, and females 185 to 350 grams.
  • Male sparrowhawks wingspans range between 56 and 65cm and females 65 to 78cm.
Kestrel

Common Kestrel or Rock Kestrel

Sparrowhawk

Sparrowhawk

Which is more common, the kestrel or sparrowhawk?

In the UK, kestrels have a higher population than sparrowhawk, but this doesn't mean you're always more likely to see kestrels. In fact, you're generally much more likely to see a sparrowhawk in your garden, as they are more common visitors. Kestrels do sometimes come into gardens, but less frequently.

Both Sparrowhawks and Kestrels can be found and spotted all year round.

Sparrowhawks are often spotted in towns and cities, as well as rural areas, gardens and open countryside. They can be found in most parts of the country in the UK, other than some parts of the Scottish Highlands, the Western Isles and Shetland.

Female Sparrowhawk

Female Sparrowhawk

Kestrels also have a broad and similar variety of habitats but are mostly spotted hovering up high in the countryside and along motorways, on the lookout for prey. This isn't to say that they aren't found in towns and cities too, but it's generally less common; however, kestrels have adapted well to man-made environments.

Once upon a time, Kestrels were the most common bird of prey in the UK. Recent declines mean that Kestrels are now the second most common bird of prey and has been taken over by the thriving Common Buzzard population. These recent declines mean they have an amber status in the UK. It's thought that the majority of the recent decline is down to starvation, particularly in juveniles during their first autumn and winter. Other reasons for the decline are shooting, poisoning, accidents, collisions and disease.

Female Kestrel

Female Kestrel

Other differences between a kestrel and sparrowhawk

Eyes

If you manage to be close enough to see the eyes, adult sparrowhawks have piercing yellow or orange irises, whereas kestrels have dark irises.

Like most birds of prey, both species have excellent eyesight and are capable of spotting prey from great heights and distances.

Head shape

The proportionate size and shape of the head is another good way to tell the difference, as sparrowhawks have fairly small-looking heads. Kestrels have heads that are generally much rounder looking.

Close up of a sparrowhawk

Close up of a sparrowhawk

Close up of a kestrel

Close up of a kestrel

Flight

When identifying whilst flying, the flight pattern can be an excellent way to identify. Sparrowhawks tend to typically do five or six wing flaps followed by a short glide, and this pattern is repeated as they soar across the sky.

Sparrowhawks are also unable to hover like kestrels have the impressive and characteristic ability to do.

Diet and hunting

The sparrowhawk is suited and adapted for hunting birds in confined spaces, like gardens and dense woodland. In gardens, they've been recorded hunting 120 different species of mainly small birds, but larger birds such as pigeons are often predated on.

Sparrowhawks often fly low to the ground to surprise their prey with these attacks.

Kestrels mainly hunt for small mammals like voles, shrews and mice. In fact these generally make up around three-quarters of their overall diet. When small mammals are less abundant, small birds can make up more of their diet.

Life expectancy

Both the average lifespan for a kestrel and sparrowhawk is around four years but have both been recorded at ages over 16 years.

Calls

Both kestrels and sparrowhawks are generally relatively silent birds and become more vocal during the breeding season.

Kestrels emit a piercing 'kee-kee-kee' call, which is mainly heard at nesting sites.

Sparrowhawks produce a call that is like a rapid cackling or chattering, similar to 'kewkewkewkew'.

Common Kestrel Call

Simon Elliott, XC590630. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/590630.

Sparrowhawk call

Simon Elliott, XC589041. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/589041.

Kestrel plumage

Male kestrels have grey heads and tails and dark black bands at the end of their tails. The outer half of their upper wings are dark, with the rest of the wing and back a chestnut colour with dark spotting. The underparts are mostly pale and also have spotting, generally on the breast and on the underwing coverts.

Females are similar to males, although they lack the grey head and tail. Their plumages also tend to be more uniform and have heavier spotting. The tails also lack the black band and instead have many narrow bands.

Juveniles are extremely similar to females but have lighter feet, legs and cere.

Sparrowhawk plumage

Male sparrowhawks have slate-grey or bluish backs and wings and orangish bars on their breasts. Females have primarily brownish wings and greyish backs, with brown bars underneath.

Juvenile and young sparrowhawks are very similar to females, however, their breasts have more of a brown chevron pattern, instead of the horizontal bars.

Compare Kestrel and Sparrowhawk

Kestrel

Kestrel

Falco tinnunculus

Other names: Common Kestrel

Length:

32cm to 35cm

Wingspan:

71cm to 80cm

Weight:

156g to 252g

Learn about the Kestrel
Sparrowhawk

Sparrowhawk

Accipiter nisus

.

Length:

28cm to 38cm

Wingspan:

55cm to 70cm

Weight:

110g to 342g

Learn about the Sparrowhawk

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