This morning, for the first time in my observation since we moved here over thirty one years ago, a particular drama of nature was played out in our back garden, I was lucky enough to have a ring side seat and my eyes were transfixed.
Like all suburban dwellers, we would be well used to the daily arrivals and departures of our common avian friends. Magpies, Crows, Blackbirds, Starlings, Finches, Robins and Sparrows would all be the usual suspects. However, a casual glance out the back window earlier caused me to do a double take. This visitor on the back lawn, busily pecking away at what was apparently its breakfast, was different. It was a different size and colour and it was behaving differently in its eating actions to any other birds I had observed foraging and eating in our garden.
The bird was holding something firmly at grass level, between its claws. At almost every peck with its beak, as it proceeded to devour its meal, small feathers flew into the air on each upward jerk of its head. It nervously observed from side to side following each peck at its meal. I was mesmerised. In no time at all, a small carpet of feathers became strewn across the grass in front of the bird. I studied the bird’s activity for about five minutes, during which time I observed that its eyes were set in a manner akin to an Eagle. Suddenly the bird took flight, still clasping in its claws what looked to me to be like the part skeletal remains of a smaller bird. Suddenly, the term Sparrow Hawk popped into my mind. I carried out some quick research and discovered that I was spot on in my identification of bird species.
Apparently 98% of the diet of the Sparrow Hawk is small birds. Nature can be cruel indeed. Variations on the Sparrow Hawk theme can be found from country to country with the species having a presence as well in Africa, Asia, China, Europe, the Mediterranean, Russia and the United Kingdom.
Typical habitat for Sparrow Hawks would be: Oak Woods, Beech Woods, Hedgerows and Farmland. Sparrow Hawks 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. They don’t specialise in particular species, but take whatever is available and easy to catch. As a result, 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% of a Sparrow Hawk’s diet is fledglings. They employ many hunting techniques, depending on the habitat and prey. They are not built for stamina and long chases, though they have the ability to maneuver in pursuit better than any other Raptors. 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 Sparrow Hawk is capable of up to 50 kph in short bursts. Hunting Sparrow Hawks can be so focused on their task that they put themselves at risk of harm from collisions. Because they’re quite easily seen and small birds give warning calls to each other, only about one attack in ten results in capture.
Dublin’s Phoenix Park, with its significant bird population has the Sparrow Hawk (or Accipiter nisus) as resident. Groups like Irish Birding, who would be active in the Phoenix Park, regularly confirm the presence of Sparrow Hawks. Here is an excerpt from one of their 2011 reports following observations made in the Oldtown Wood area of the park:
Sighting Ref: IB33242
Sighting Date: 15 Apr 11
Common Name: Sparrow Hawk
Scientific Name: Accipiter nisus
Location: Phoenix Park
Number Seen: 3
Principal Observer(s): Mark Hanley Not Specified
Reported By: Not Specified
Comments: Three. Oldtown Wood, Phoenix Park.
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