The Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) is a beautiful but deadly hunter. These birds are usually shy and elusive, although they can be bold when hunting, something many garden bird feeders regret!
They are one of the smallest birds of prey in the UK and a species that can provide fascinating birdwatching experiences. So, where do Sparrowhawks live?
Sparrowhawks occur in forests and wooded areas throughout most of the United Kingdom. They have a wide geographical range across Europe and Asia to reach Siberia and Japan in the east. These birds are migratory in parts of their distribution, and some even overwinter in East Africa.
Sparrowhawks prefer densely wooded areas for nesting, typically where trees grow together in close proximity. However, these birds hunt over a variety of habitats, and the larger females will forage over open terrain like moorland and pasture.
This article covers the distribution and habitat of the Sparrowhawk. Read along to learn where you might spot these agile aerial hunters.
Sparrowhawks occur in forests and wooded areas throughout most of the United Kingdom
Sparrowhawks have a large and somewhat disjointed distribution across Europe, Asia, and Africa. They are largely confined to the Northern Hemisphere, although small numbers migrate south of the Equator in Kenya and Tanzania.
These birds are partial migrants, which means some populations remain in the same areas throughout the year while others migrate between breeding grounds in the north and overwintering grounds in the south.
Sparrowhawks are sedentary across much of Europe, although birds that breed in the north tend to fly south to escape the icy conditions. Many of these birds join the resident population of Sparrowhawks in the UK in the Autumn.
Eurasian Sparrowhawks have a fairly wide distribution across Europe, Asia and Africa
There are six recognised subspecies of the Eurasian Sparrowhawk, and only the nominate subspecies, Accipiter nisus nisus is present in the UK. Keep reading to learn where they live.
Sparrowhawks occur virtually throughout the United Kingdom, although they are generally absent from the Scottish Highlands, the Outer Hebrides and Shetland in the North Sea. They breed in every region of the UK but tend to avoid the most open habitats without wooded areas.
Sparrowhawks may be widespread in the UK, but knowing which habitats they prefer is vital if you’d like to see these elusive raptors for yourself. So, where should you look for the Sparrowhawk?
Sparrowhawks occasionally hunt over marshes and other open areas, although they are first and foremost a bird of forests and woodlands. They use their speed and stealth to surprise small birds, often by manoeuvring between tree trunks and branches.
However, you probably don’t need to travel far for a chance at spotting these birds. In fact, Sparrowhawks have become increasingly common in villages, towns, and even cities with established parks.
These adaptable birds have even learned to take advantage of the increased densities of songbirds around garden bird-feeding stations.
Look out for Sparrowhawks in the following habitats:
Woodland and forests are one of the best places to spot Sparrowhawks - male Sparrowhawk perched on a branch
Sparrowhawks are not rare in favourable habitats, although they are elusive and tend to occur in low numbers. A quiet walk in a wood or plantation could reward the birdwatcher with a sighting of these master bird hunters.
Estimates put the UK Sparrowhawk population at over 30,000 pairs, but they have not always been as common as they are now. Persecution by hunters in the 19th century, and nesting failure due to the widespread use of organochlorines in the mid-1900s, caused drastic population reductions.
Sparrowhawks are most visible in the spring when the birds form pairs and display. Female Sparrowhawks often circle high above the nesting territory, and the more colourful males display with a slow undulating flight, often diving steeply and climbing almost vertically. However, they are territorial in the nesting season, and pairs tend to space themselves by at least 500 meters, but often as much as two kilometres.
Sparrowhawks can also be rather vocal in the nesting season. Listen out for their kek-kek-kek calls and the begging of recently fledged juveniles in the first three weeks to a month after leaving the nest in late summer/autumn.
Female Sparrowhawk bathing in forest waterhole
Look out for Sparrowhawks just about anywhere that healthy woodland or forest habitats occur. They also frequent mature plantations and have even adapted to life in our towns and cities.
Sparrowhawks are diurnal birds. They do most of their hunting in the early morning and then remain relatively inactive until the late afternoon, when they may target roosting birds. Some Sparrowhawks even hunt bats at dusk, but they retire to roost in trees at night.
Male Sparrowhawk perched, feeding on prey
Sparrowhawks in the UK are resident, so birdwatchers can enjoy sightings throughout the year. However, other populations are highly migratory. Birds that breed in Russia and China, for instance, head south to overwinter in the subtropics and tropics of Southern Asia and East Africa.
Sparrowhawks are highly territorial in the nesting season, and birds holding high-quality nesting territories with a rich prey supply may remain throughout the year.
Hunting is relatively easy in the summer when other birds are nesting. Sparrowhawks take advantage of helpless nestlings and clumsy fledgelings at this time of the year.
However, finding a meal becomes more challenging in the winter when the young birds are all grown up and songbird densities decrease. The challenge prompts many Sparrowhawks to disperse and hunt over a greater home range.
Females often forgo their summer woodland habitats for more open terrain where they may hunt waders and even small game birds.
Eurasian Sparrowhawk in flight
Sparrowhawks remain in the UK throughout the winter. In fact, there is a small influx in the Autumn when overwintering birds migrate from their summer breeding grounds across the North Sea. These birds will return to Norway, Denmark, and other northern European countries in the spring.
Sparrowhawk numbers also increase elsewhere in Europe during the winter, particularly in the central and Mediterranean countries. In the East, low numbers arrive in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.
Summer Is the breeding season for Sparrowhawks. At this time, breeding pairs will remain within the vicinity of their nest site while they raise their chicks. Migratory Sparrowhawks that spent the winter in Africa and South and Southeast Asia return to their breeding grounds in Europe and Northern Asia to breed.
Close up portrait of a Eurasian Sparrowhawk
Sparrowhawks do not occur in groups, although adults feed their fledglings for up to a month after leaving the nest, so temporary family groups occur in the nesting territory during late summer.
Sparrowhawks are solitary in the non-breeding season. They occur in pairs when nesting, although birds that have not found a partner (known as floaters) occur singly throughout the year.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.