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It's always a thrill to see a bird of prey, especially if it's in your own back garden, but sometimes working out what it is can be tricky.

Our Wildlife Enquiries team probably receives more queries about sparrowhawks than any other species. They can be confused with several other birds of prey. Find out what to look for.

Sparrowhawk - less than a year old

Juvenile sparrowhawk

Image: Philippe Garcelon (Creative Commons)

Young sparrowhawks have brown wings and backs, with chestnut-brown edges to the feathers. Their breast feathers have brown streaks or chevrons.

Adult female sparrowhawks are also brownish, but with horizontal bars on the breast feathers and a greyer back and wings.

Sparrowhawk - adult male

Adult male sparrowhawk

Image: Dave Curtis (Creative Commons)

Adult male sparrowhawks have orange breasts and slate-grey or bluish backs and wings. As they get older, their eyes turn from yellow to orange



Image: Graham Catley

Kestrels sometimes come into gardens, but sparrowhawks are more common visitors. 

If your bird is sitting still, have a look at its eyes. Sparrowhawks have piercing yellow or orangey irises, whereas kestrels' eyes are all-dark.


Peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus, perched on hotel roof, Manchester city centre

Image: Ben Hall

Though peregrines are breeding successfully in many UK cities now, a bird which has killed a pigeon in your garden is still more likely to be a sparrowhawk. 

Male sparrowhawks are smaller than the females, and tend to take smaller prey, but a female is capable of taking a collared dove or even a woodpigeon. Again, look at the eyes - peregrine eyes are all-dark.


Merlin in flight

Image: Graham Catley

In 99 per cent of garden situations, merlins can be ruled out. They are supremely adapted for hunting in open country - the enclosed spaces of gardens just aren't their style. It's very unlikely that you'll see one sitting on a fence or roof. 

Unlike sparrowhawks, merlins and other falcons always have all-dark eyes


Goshawk in tree

Image: F Dahlmann (Creative Commons)

Goshawks can look similar to sparrowhawks (a large female sparrowhawk can be almost the same size as a male goshawk), but again, they don't really 'do' gardens. They are very shy birds which inhabit large areas of woodland or tracts of open countryside.