The Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) is an agile and cunning hunter from the Accipitridae family. These birds have recovered after drastic declines from hunting and pesticide use and are fairly common and widespread breeding residents in the UK today.
Watching them hunt is a thrilling experience for those lucky enough to witness their acrobatics, although they are understandably unpopular with many garden birdwatchers. But where, when, and how do they nest?
Sparrowhawks nest once a year in the spring and summer, laying 3 to 6 eggs on average. Both parents work together to build the nest and raise the chicks, although each partner has their own duties. These shy raptors prefer to nest in dense woods, although some urban pairs nest in parks and gardens.
Would you like to learn more about the Sparrowhawk’s nesting habits? Continue reading as we unpack more fascinating facts and details!
Close up of a Sparrowhawk, nesting in a back garden
Sparrowhawk nests are often difficult to locate. These birds prefer to nest in densely wooded areas where observation can be tricky.
Sparrowhawks are territorial when breeding and do not tolerate other pairs near their nest. Nesting pairs choose a suitable tree with a dense canopy and build their nest near the trunk where it is well hidden. The nest is placed in a fork or atop a branch, usually high above the ground.
Sparrowhawks nest throughout most of the UK, although they are absent from parts of the Sottish Highlands and other areas where suitable nest sites are scarce.
In other parts of their wide range, these birds migrate south for the winter, with some even visiting Southeast Asia and Equatorial East Africa.
Sparrowhawks build a new nest each spring. They may choose to nest in a new area, even though they are residents throughout the year in the United Kingdom. Some pairs stay together for more than one breeding season, and these birds may breed repeatedly in the same area.
Eurasian Sparrowhawk in the nest with recently hatched chicks
Sparrowhawks prefer to nest in dense coniferous or mixed woodlands. However, they will nest in suitable gardens with mature trees. These birds have adapted well to life around our towns and cities and often hunt for Chaffinches and other common garden birds.
Sparrowhawks do not use nest boxes, preferring to build their nests on tree branches. However, other birds of prey, like Kestrels and Barn Owls, will make use of nest boxes, so consider putting one up if you have suitable habitat where you live.
Sparrowhawks prefer to nest in coniferous trees, although they will also nest in large deciduous trees. In Scotland, for example, Sparrowhawks often nest in twenty to forty-year-old conifer plantations.
Sparrowhawks commonly nest in the following tree species:
Sparrowhawks tend to build their nests well above the prying eyes of birdwatchers. The lowest nests might be just two meters above the ground, but they will also nest at heights of thirty-five meters in large trees.
Juvenile Sparrowhawk perched inside of the nest, high up in a tree
Active Sparrowhawk nests are not easy to find, but the presence of plucked feathers from their prey and white down feathers in the branches around a large nest are good clues. Keep reading to learn more about Sparrowhawk nests.
Sparrowhawks build simple platform nests, typical of raptors in their family. They are made largely of twigs and appear quite wide and shallow. The nest is roughly circular when viewed from below, although often built up against the tree trunk.
Sparrowhawk nests are very variable in size. Smaller examples measure about 30 centimeters in diameter, although they can be nearly a meter wide. The platform is not particularly deep at 8 - 30 cm.
Overhead close up of a Sparrowhawk nest, with six unhatched eggs inside
The timing of Sparrowhawk nesting varies somewhat across their extensive geographic range. Keep reading to learn when these woodland hunters breed in the UK.
Sparrowhawks breed between April and August in the UK. Nesting begins in the spring and concludes at the end of summer.
This timing coincides with the breeding season of many other birds. The abundance of songbird fledglings at this time of the year makes providing for the Sparrowhawk chicks easy and gives the young birds a ready source of prey to hone their hunting skills.
Sparrowhawk breeding takes over three months all told, usually concluding in August. It can take many weeks to complete building their nest, and the young birds will continue to receive care for up to a month after fledging.
Read on for a breakdown of each stage in the Sparrowhawk nesting period.
Sparrowhawk nesting timeline:
Female Eurasian Sparrowhawk sat on the nest, incubating the eggs
Sparrowhawks usually lay their eggs in May in the UK.
Sparrowhawks do not nest in winter. However, you can see these birds at any time of the year in the United Kingdom.
Some of the Sparrowhawks seen in winter are birds from Northern Europe that have crossed the North Sea to enjoy the milder winter. These migratory birds will return to their breeding grounds in the spring.
Close up of a Sparrowhawk chick stood up inside of the nest
Like many other raptors, Sparrowhawks build a simple but sturdy platform nest. Continue reading to learn more details about their nest and its construction.
Sparrowhawks collect twigs and build a round platform on a sturdy base like a large branch or a fork near the tree trunk. They arrange the twigs to form a bowl shape, which prevents the eggs or chicks from falling out. They finish by adding softer materials to create a more comfortable home for the growing chicks.
Sparrowhawks build sturdy nests, although they use a limited range of materials. They construct their nests with pencil-thick twigs, sometimes using bark flakes to line the interior. Little fresh green material is used.
Both male and female Sparrowhawks chip in when building the nest. Males may even continue to bring in nesting materials after the female has begun to incubate the eggs.
Female Sparrowhawk at the nest
Few people get to see Sparrowhawk eggs because these raptors tend to build their nests high above the ground. However, observant birdwatchers might find eggshells below an active Sparrowhawk nest- here’s what they look like:
Sparrowhawk eggs measure about 39mm x 33mm, similar in size to Wood Pigeon eggs. The eggs are white or blueish-white with brown blotches and speckles.
Sparrowhawks usually lay three to six eggs, although the recorded range is one to seven. Young females produce fewer eggs than older birds in their prime.
Male Sparrowhawks do not incubate the eggs. Their role is to supply food to the female while she sits on the eggs. He will continue to feed his partner and their chicks for the first few weeks after hatching.
Close up of six Sparrowhawk eggs
Baby Sparrowhawks are cared for by both parents. The male brings in most of the food when the chicks are young, but the female Sparrowhawk brings in bigger prey when the chicks grow larger.
Baby Sparrowhawks leave the nest about a month after hatching. Interestingly, male chicks fledge the nest at about 26 days old, while females fledge at 30 days. However, the chicks will remain in the vicinity for three to four weeks after fledging.
Female Sparrowhawks are significantly larger than males. The difference in size explains why female chicks take a few days longer to reach fledging age.
Sparrowhawks produce a single brood each year. They may lay a second or third clutch if earlier clutches fail.
Young Sparrowhawk chicks in the nest
Sparrowhawks abandon their nest each year after fledging their young. They will build a new nest from scratch in the following spring. Several nests can accumulate in suitable nesting areas because their nests tend to last more than a single season.
Sparrowhawks do not nest on the ground. They always build their nests in trees, sometimes as high as thirty-five meters off the ground.
Sparrowhawks roost in the cover of trees at night. The female will spend the night in the nest while incubating the eggs and brooding the chicks. Recently fledged Sparrowhawks also return to the nest each night to sleep.
Sparrowhawks are often attracted to gardens where they may take advantage of songbirds attracted to bird tables. However, they are unlikely to nest in any but the most mature wooded gardens.
Sparrowhawks have become increasingly common in towns and cities. They do not nest in buildings, preferring the shelter of trees in forests and dense woodlands. However, Sparrowhawks may nest near buildings in parks and larger gardens.
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