Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, standing on roof ridge, Hampshire

Sparrowhawk hunting

Sparrowhawks don't specialise in particular species, but take whatever is available and easy to catch.

How they hunt

They are not built for stamina and long chases, though they have the ability to manoeuvre in pursuit better than any other raptor. In order to be successful they have to be able to approach their prey closely and undetected.

The usual flying speed is 30-40 kph, but a sparrowhawk is capable of up to 50 kph in short bursts. Hunting sparrowhawks can be so focussed on their task that they put themselves at risk of harm from collisions. Because they're quite easily seen, and small birds will give warning calls to each other, only about one attack in ten results in capture.

Sparrowhawks spend more time hunting in habitats where prey availability is high and the chance of success is greatest. They have learnt that gardens are an easy source of prey, bringing the realities of nature up close to our homes.

Sparrowhawk, Accipter nissus, in long grass, Cheshire

Choosing their prey

The most frequently caught birds are numerous and conspicuous, or are sick, old, weak or injured.

The female takes prey up to wood pigeon size, but the smaller male does not catch anything bigger than the mistle thrush. In summer, about 40 per cent of a sparrowhawk's diet is fledglings.   

They employ many hunting techniques, depending on the habitat and prey.

Sparrowhawk, Accipter nissus, perched on mossy stump, Chehsire

The issue with pigeons

Some pigeon fanciers and their organisations have called for birds of prey, particularly sparrowhawks and peregrines, to be removed or killed to protect their interests. These calls continue despite the results of scientific studies, which clearly and consistently conclude that removal or lethal control is not justified.

Any change in the law to protect racing pigeons at the expense of protected birds of prey is resisted by the RSPB. There is no scientific justification for suggesting that the killing or removal of birds of prey is an appropriate, proportionate response to this issue.  

Pigeon owners must accept there are some natural risks in the environment into which they choose to deliberately release their birds. Bird of prey impacts on racing pigeons are extremely low when compared to other factors such as straying, bad weather, domestic cats and collisions.

Feral Pigeon Columba livia (domest.), close up in flight, The Wirral, UK