Essentially a forest edge and hedgerow bird, the sparrowhawk extends its hunting range into more open country and into gardens during the autumn and winter periods. This explains why, in eight years of living in Fairfield, I have only seen two sparrowhawks, both in autumn time.
The sparrowhawk is not a rare bird. There are about 35,000 breeding pairs in the UK and the population is stable. As its name suggests it feeds mostly on small birds, which it flushes from the hedgerows during the nesting season. Its short, broad wings enable it to pursue prey through trees.
We are kind enough to put bird feeders in our gardens and these are like fast-food restaurants for sparrowhawks. They know the location of all likely birdfeeders and will fly into the garden at full speed and just grab any bird on the feeder and carry it off. In our previous house, which backed onto farmland, I saw a female sparrowhawk take a Greater Spotted Woodpecker and wrestle with it on the lawn before eventually admitting defeat.
Sparrowhawks are solitary birds and only come together when they want to breed during spring and summer. They choose a new partner each year. During the mating season they maintain a territory of about one kilometre in every direction from the nest and will not tolerate another nest close by.
Both sexes have short wings, rounded at the ends. The male has slate-grey upper parts and reddish-brown underparts. The larger female has browner upper parts, dark-brown bars on the underparts and a white stripe behind the eye. Both sexes have fearsome looking yellow eyes.
The nest is built, by the female only, high in a tree and consists of large and smaller twigs on a flat branch next to the trunk. Usually four to six eggs, bluish-white with red-brown blotches, are laid in May.
Incubation is by the female only whilst the cock hunts single handed to supply food for the brooding female. Later, both parents work hard to feed the young, until they leave the nest after 24 to 30 days. The diet consists mostly of small birds, but occasionally also mice, voles and young rabbits. There is only one brood a year. The survival rate of sparrowhawks in the first year is only 35 per cent, but after that these birds can live for up to 10 years.