Sparrowhawk Hunting (Behaviour, Prey, Techniques + FAQs)

Sparrowhawk Hunting (Behaviour, Prey, Techniques + FAQs)

Sparrowhawks are a common Accipiter hawk distributed across much of Europe, Asia and parts of Africa in the winter. These flexible birds of prey have short, rounded wings that enable them to navigate tight foliage and woodland environments.

This is a guide to Sparrowhawk hunting, including prey, techniques and more.

As the name suggests, Sparrowhawks are adept at hunting small birds like songbirds. The female is considerably larger than the male and hunts prey up to 500 g, which is 150 g more than what she weighs herself.

Sparrowhawks are so good at hunting songbirds that they cause measurable impacts on songbird populations when present in the same territory. They’re one of the most common birds of prey in Europe and are regularly spotted among woodlands and shrubs.

Of course, there’s much more to learn about the Sparrowhawk’s awesome hunting abilities - read on to find out!

Close up of a Sparrowhawk about to launch an attack on unsuspecting prey

Close up of a Sparrowhawk about to launch an attack on unsuspecting prey

How do Sparrowhawks hunt?

Sparrowhawks are carnivorous birds of prey who hunt for a wide range of small birds and mammals. Small birds make up the vast majority of their diet, particularly tits, finches, sparrows, buntings, thrushes and starlings.

Sparrowhawks hunt primarily in the early morning and evening, when the light is low and the birds they target are less suspecting. Using their sharp eyesight and acute hearing, they scan their surroundings for potential prey even when light is relatively low.

When a suitable target is spotted, Sparrowhawks will typically surprise their victims by swooping down from a high perch and using their strong wings to quickly close in on the prey. They often hit their prey with their feet first, using their sharp talons to pull it to the ground if it’s a bird.

Most small prey is killed upon impact, but larger quarry, such as doves and rabbits, are squeezed and pierced until they succumb to their wounds.

Sparrowhawks also hunt by covertly ambushing their prey, often perching and waiting for an unsuspecting victim to pass nearby.

Sparrowhawks are flexible hunters, however, and there are seven main modes of hunting:

  • Perch hunting
  • High soaring and stooping
  • Contour-hugging in flight (to catch birds)
  • Hunting from stationary positions
  • Low swooping
  • Hunting by sound
  • Hunting on foot
A well camouflaged Sparrowhawk waiting patiently for a meal

A well camouflaged Sparrowhawk waiting patiently for a meal

Sparrowhawks primarily hunt birds

Sparrowhawks, as the name suggests, more-or-less specialise in hunting birds. They do hunt mammals, but these consist of less than 2% of their diet in some regions. Some 150 species of birds have been recorded as Sparrowhawk prey, including many species of songbirds, thrushes and larger birds like pigeons, doves and small gamebirds.

The presence of Sparrowhawks causes a marked decline in songbird numbers. For example, one study of Blue tits found their annual survival rate dropped from 0.485 to 0.376 when Sparrowhawks were present across the territory.

Sparrowhawks have short, blunt wings that enable them to manoeuvre through trees. However, they’re not designed for lengthy soaring or drawn-out encounters and spend most of their time waiting around for prey to appear. Hunting techniques vary between summer and winter; in winter, Sparrowhawks put more effort into actively pursuing prey throughout the day.

Male Sparrowhawk about to hunt prey

Male Sparrowhawk about to hunt prey

What time of day do Sparrowhawks hunt?

Sparrowhawks are almost totally inactive during the main part of the day. They hunt in the first 3 hours of daylight, in the morning, and sometimes later in the evening at dusk.

They have keen eyesight and are excellent at targeting unsuspecting prey when light is relatively low, so they use that to their advantage.

Sparrowhawks don’t always hunt at night, and it’s more common when food is scarce, e.g. in winter. However, when they have chicks to feed in the breeding season, Sparrowhawks hunt more regularly during the day.

Sparrowhawk after a successful hunt for a Pheasant

Sparrowhawk after a successful hunt for a Pheasant

Do Sparrowhawks return to killed prey?

When they make a larger kill, Sparrowhawks might return to consume some later if they can’t eat it in one go. They’re not known to cache prey.

Signs of a Sparrowhawk attack

The signs of a Sparrowhawk attack are a rapid ambush that is usually short and sharp. Most prey are killed on impact, but otherwise, the Sparrowhawk will squeeze with its talons or push the prey into the ground.

Sparrowhawks are somewhat covert hunters compared to soaring birds of prey like Red kites or eagles. They tend to sit in dense foliage or on a treetop perch before launching themselves at prey, capturing them from the air or the ground.

Sparrowhawk in flight with captured prey

Sparrowhawk in flight with captured prey

How many birds does a Sparrowhawk eat per day?

An adult Sparrowhawk consumes around 40 to 50 g of meat a day. A Blue tit weighs around 10 g, whereas a Starling weighs 70 to 100 g. Depending on the prey, a Sparrowhawk might get away with eating just one bird per day, or they might need 4 or 5.

One study found that, in one year, a pair of Sparrowhawks might consume 2,200 house sparrows, 600 common blackbirds or 110 wood pigeons!

What prey do Sparrowhawk hunt?

Male and female Sparrowhawks have different diets, as the female is larger and can catch a wider variety of prey. This is the case for many birds of prey - it helps mated pairs keep their diets diverse and varied depending on food availability in their habitat.

Males tend to prey upon smaller birds like tits, finches, sparrows and buntings. In contrast, female Sparrowhawks can tackle prey some 2 ½ times heavier, including thrushes, starlings, doves and pigeons. Females have been even observed tackling pheasants.

Sparrowhawks consume a huge range of birds across their range, with some 150 species of birds recorded in their diet.

In addition to birds, Sparrowhawks also hunt mammals, including:

  • Bats
  • Mice
  • Voles
  • Squirrels
  • Rats
  • Shrews
  • Rabbits
Sparrowhawk perched on a garden fence, on the lookout for prey

Sparrowhawk perched on a garden fence, on the lookout for prey

Sparrowhawk hunting call

Sparrowhawks emit an array of “tek” sounds when roaming their territories but are generally silent when hunting. After all, they often rely on the element of surprise.

What is the success rate of Sparrowhawk hunts?

The success rate of Sparrowhawk hunting attempts is around 10%. This might seem low, but with a diverse diet, Sparrowhawks aren’t reliant on that one big kill like some other birds of prey.

Hunting small birds is difficult, so even despite the Sparrowhawks’ exceptional agility, their success rate is pretty low.

Sparrowhawk in flight, hunting birds

Sparrowhawk in flight, hunting birds

What is the largest bird Sparrowhawks hunt?

Female Sparrowhawks can hunt large prey weighing up to 500 g, which is around 150 g more than the female. Such prey includes pigeons, doves, pheasants and ducks.

This is quite rare - Sparrowhawks are much more likely to target birds smaller than a starling.

What mammals do Sparrowhawks hunt?

Sparrowhawks hunt a wide range of mammals, including bats, mice, voles, squirrels, rats, shrews, and rabbits.

Mammals consist of just 2% of their diet in some regions.

Close up of a perched female Sparrowhawk

Close up of a perched female Sparrowhawk

Sparrowhawk hunting in the winter

In the winter, Sparrowhawks tend to hunt more actively, probably because bird life becomes less abundant. Hunting techniques also vary, as many birds migrate, leading to changes in the concentration of local species.

Do both male and female Sparrowhawks hunt?

Both the male and female hunt, and do so independently of each other. Females are some 20% larger than males and can capture much larger prey. In fact, the female’s prey can be some 2 ½ times heavier than the male’s.

This helps keep their diets diverse, as the male and female aren’t competing with each other, allowing them to cover a wider niche to properly feed their chicks. This is the same for many birds of prey - females are typically larger than the male and concentrate on larger prey.

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