Eurasian Sparrowhawk

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Image:Eurasiansparrowhawk.jpg

Common Name: Northern or Eurasian Sparrowhawk
Scientific Name: Accipiter nisus

Size: 11-16 inches (29–41cm); Wingspan: 23-31 inches (59–80 cm)

Habitat: Eurasia and Africa; found throughout the temperate and subtropical parts of Eurasia and Africa. Birds from the northern parts of the range migrate south for winter; their southern counterparts remain resident or make dispersive movements.

Status: Least Concern. Global population: 1,500,000 adult individuals. The race A. n. granti, is estimated with 100 pairs resident on Madeira and 200 pairs on the Canary Islands, which is threatened by loss of habitat, egg-collecting and illegal hunting, and is listed on Annex I of the European Commission Birds Directive. The Norwegian and Albanian populations are declining and, in many parts of Europe, Eurasian sparrowhawks are still shot. However, this low-level persecution has not affected the populations badly. In the UK, the population increased by 108% from 1970 to 2005, but saw a 1% decline over 1994–2006. In Ireland, it is the most common bird of prey, breeding even near the city center of Dublin.

Diet: Birds (Males tend to take tits, finches, sparrows and buntings; females often take pigeons, thrushes and starlings). It does on occasions take small rodents and other small land based prey, but birds account for well over 90% of their diet.

Small birds are killed on impact or when squeezed by the sparrowhawk's foot, especially the two long claws. Victims which struggle are "kneaded" by the hawk, using its talons to squeeze and stab. When dealing with large prey species which peck and flap, the hawk's long legs help. It stands on top of its prey to pluck and pull it apart. The feathers are plucked and usually the breast muscles are eaten first. The bones are left, but can be broken using the notch in the bill. Like other birds of prey, Eurasian sparrowhawks produce pellets containing indigestible parts of their prey.

Nesting: The adult male has slate-grey upperparts (sometimes tending to bluish), with finely red-barred underparts, which can look plain orange from a distance. The eyes are orange-yellow or orange-red. The female is 25% larger at 35–41 cm long, with a wingspan of 67–80 cm. She has dark brown or greyish-brown upperparts, and brown-barred underparts, and bright yellow to orange eyes. The juvenile is warm brown above, with rusty fringes to the upperparts; and coarsely barred or spotted brown below, with pale yellow eyes. Its throat has dark streaks and lacks a midline stripe.

Sparrowhawks breed in well-grown, extensive areas of woodland, often coniferous or mixed, preferring forest with a structure neither too dense nor too open, which allows a choice of flight paths. The nest is usually located in the fork of a tree, often near the trunk and where two or three branches begin, on a horizontal branch in the lower canopy, or near the top of a tall shrub. If available, conifers are preferred.

A new nest is built every year, generally close to the nest of the previous year, and sometimes using an old wood pigeon nest as a base. Males do most of the nest building work. The structure is made of loose twigs and when the eggs are laid, a lining of fine twigs or bark chippings is added.

During the breeding season, the adult male loses a small amount of weight while feeding his mate before she lays eggs, and also when the young are large and require more food. The weight of the adult female is highest in May, when laying eggs, and lowest in August after the breeding cycle is complete. A study suggested that the number of eggs and subsequent breeding success are dependent on the female maintaining a high weight while the male is feeding her.

A clutch of four or five pale blue eggs with brown spots is laid. The eggs are generally laid in the morning with an interval of 2-3 days between each one. Incubation lasts an average 39-42 days for complete clutch. The young fledge after 24-30 days, males before females. 34% of juveniles survive their first year.

Cool Facts: The Eurasian sparrowhawk's pale underparts and darker upperparts are an example of countershading, which helps to break up the bird's outline.

During one year, a pair of Eurasian sparrowhawks can take up to 2,200 house sparrows, 600 common blackbirds or 110 wood pigeons.

The Eurasian sparrowhawk's hunting behavior has brought it into conflict with humans for hundreds of years, particularly racing pigeon owners and people rearing poultry and gamebirds. It has also been blamed for decreases in passerine populations although no scientific research has found a link between increased numbers of Sparrowhawks and declines in some farmland and woodland birds after World War II. Studies of racing pigeon deaths found that Eurasian sparrowhawks were responsible for less than 1%.

Falconers have utilized the Eurasian sparrowhawk since at least the 16th century; although the species has a reputation for being difficult to train, it is also praised for its courage.

The species features in Teutonic mythology and is mentioned in works by writers including William Shakespeare, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Ted Hughes.

In Greek mythology, Nisus, the king of Megara, was turned into a sparrowhawk after his daughter, Scylla, cut off his purple lock of hair to present to her lover (and Nisus' enemy), Minos.

There are 6 subspecies of Sparrowhawk:

  • A. n. nisus, first described by Linnaeus in 1758. The nominate subspecies; it breeds from Europe and west Asia to western Siberia and Iran; northern populations winter south to the Mediterranean, north-east Africa, Arabia and Pakistan.
  • A. n. nisosimilis, first described by Samuel Tickell in 1833. It breeds from central and eastern Siberia east to Kamchatka and Japan, and south to northern China. This subspecies is wholly migratory, wintering from Pakistan and India eastwards through South-East Asia and southern China to Korea and Japan; some even reach Africa. It is very similar to, but slightly larger than, the nominate subspecies.
  • A. n. melaschistos, first described by Allan Octavian Hume in 1869. It breeds in mountains from Afghanistan through the Himalayas and southern Tibet to western China, and winters in the plains of South Asia. It is larger and longer tailed than A. n. nisosimilis. It has dark slate-colored upperparts, and more distinct rufous barring on the underparts.
  • A. n. wolterstorffi, first described by Otto Kleinschmidt in 1900. It is resident in Sardinia and Corsica and is the smallest of all the races. It is darker on the upperparts and more barred below than the nominate subspecies.
  • A. n. granti, first described by Richard Bowdler Sharpe in 1890. It is confined to Madeira and the Canary Islands. It is smaller and darker than the nominate species.
  • A. n. punicus, first described by Erlanger in 1897. It is resident in north-west Africa, north of the Sahara desert. It is very similar to the nominate species except for being larger and paler.


This 3D Model is found in Songbird ReMix Birds of Prey Volume II: Hawks of the Old World

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