What's that bird of prey?

Blink and you’ll miss it! Sparrowhawks, peregrine falcons and goshawks are agile hunters that are supremely adapted to their environments.

They’re all very fast-moving birds, so identifying them can be a challenge. If you’re in a garden, it’s likely to be a sparrowhawk, as peregrine falcons prefer high vantage points such as sea cliffs (or cathedrals, in urban areas). Goshawks are secretive birds and rarely seen, though they’re making a comeback.

Sparrowhawk, ghost of the garden

Identification

  • Males have a blue/grey back and orange chests.
  • Females are brown/grey on top with pale chests.
  • Both have heavily barred chests and striking yellow eyes.
  • They’re mostly seen as single birds, often flying through gardens at high speed.

Call/Song

They’re usually silent, but can make a variety of noises, particularly around the breeding season.  Their main call resembles "kekekeke" or "kewkewkewkew".

Behaviour

Sparrowhawks are woodland birds that have adapted to urban green spaces. They’re fast and agile and hunt by surprise, using buildings and plants as cover before popping out at the last moment to catch their prey.

They’re particularly drawn to the populations of small birds that cluster around our feeders and bird tables, and this can lead to upsetting encounters. However, predator and prey relationships are a necessary part of any ecosystem, and the actions of sparrowhawks are not having a negative impact on garden bird populations.

Nesting

Although quite a secretive and solitary bird during most of the year, during the breeding season, sparrowhawks
can sometimes be seen putting on an impressive flap and dive display flight. Nests are built of twigs in large
trees, and the males bring food to the females while the eggs are incubated. She’ll then share in the feeding
duties of the four or five chicks. 

Where to look

Sparrowhawks are widespread across almost all of the UK in mixed woodland, farmland and gardens. They’re very fast moving, and you may only be alerted to their presence by alarm calls or the sudden scattering of other birds from your feeders. Sometimes you’ll see them trying to hunt birds that have taken shelter in bushes, and if they catch something, they may also stay and pluck it. Away from gardens, they mostly hunt along woodland edges and hedgerows. They have a distinctive ‘flap-flap-glide’ flight pattern, which can help with identification. There are 30,500 pairs or 61,000 individual birds in the UK. 

Female sparrowhawk | The RSPB

Sparrowhawk call audio

Sophie Neill, Xeno-Canto

Peregrine falcon, the speedy hunter

Identification

  • Peregrines are a large and powerful falcon.
  • They are blue-grey above, with a blackish top of head and a black ‘moustache’.
  • They have long, pointed wings and a short tail.
  • They have a finely-barred breast.
  • Females are considerably larger than males.

Call/Song

Their alarm call sounds rather like ‘kak-kak-kak-kak’. They have a number of other vocalisations.

Behaviour

Peregrine falcons are the world’s fastest bird, reaching speeds of up to 322 kilometres per hour (200 miles per hour) as they dive-bomb their prey from mid-air. They tend to eat medium-sized birds, such as wading birds and pigeons, but have also been known to take smaller birds such as goldcrests, and even bats. In winter, they’re often seen hunting over marshland on the East coast.

Nesting

They prefer to nest on cliff ledges, quarry faces, crags and sea cliffs, and have recently started to nest in man-made structures similar to these, including some famous buildings, such as Chichester Cathedral! Tall buildings such as cathedrals are actually ideal for peregrines, as they provide a good vantage point and a flat ledge to nest on.

Their nest (or eyrie) is a slight scrape in earth or old debris. The female lays 3–4 eggs in late March or April, at 2 to 3-day intervals. Both birds share incubation, and the chicks hatch over a couple of days. Pairs of peregrines return to the same nesting spot annually.

Where to look

The highest densities are in upland areas of Wales, southern Scotland, and northwest England. They can also be found in smaller numbers in urban areas throughout the UK, particularly favouring cathedrals. UK peregrines do not migrate, and most of them stay within 100 km (around 60 miles) of their birthplace. There are around 1,500 breeding pairs in the UK.


Their numbers declined due to illegal killing and use of the pesticide DDT, so much so that in 1964, as much as 80% of the UK peregrine population had been lost. These pesticides have now been banned and they’re back to their previous levels, but are still at risk of illegal killing, particularly on grouse moors.

Peregrine call audio

Tomas Belka, Xeno-canto

Goshawk, slowly making a comeback

Identification

  • They look like really big, beefy sparrowhawks
  • Females are about the size of a buzzard, males are a bit smaller.
  • Males have a steel-grey back and white chests. They have a prominent white stripe over their eye and a black patch behind their eye.
  • Females have a brown back and a more buff-coloured chest with a brown face.
  • Both have heavily barred chests and striking yellow eyes.
  • They’re quite rare and secretive.

Call/Song

They can be vocal birds, particularly near the nest, making a ‘gek-gek’ call, and loud sudden screams.

Behaviour

Goshawks are proficient hunters and take a wide variety of prey, such as pigeons, crows, squirrels and rabbits. They hunt like sparrowhawks, using surprise and agility to sneak up on their prey, and are amazingly adept at flying through tiny gaps in dense woodland undergrowth.

Nesting

Like hen harriers, goshawks perform a ‘skydancing’ breeding flight with undulating dives. They make nests of sticks and branches in trees, and line them with bark, but may also use old nests from previous years. Females stay at the nest to incubate the eggs and will aggressively attack any trespassing animals that come too close. They can have three or four chicks, which both parents help to feed.

Where to look

Goshawks were persecuted in the UK to the point of extinction, but a small breeding population has re-established due to accidental and deliberate releases. Today, their numbers are tiny, maybe as few as 600–700 birds. Highest numbers are seen in the south of Scotland, and they’re absent from large parts of the rest of Scotland, England and Ireland. They’re a secretive bird and difficult to see, but are found in large areas of mature woodland, both deciduous and coniferous. Sadly, they still face regular persecution, and the location of breeding birds is often a closely-guarded secret.

Goshawk call audio

Patrik Aberg, Xeno-canto

Female goshawk | The RSPB
Blue tit (l), Great tit (m) and Coal tit (r) | The RSPB

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