Look at that eye. The thousand yard stare alone is enough to tell you you’re looking at a hawk of the genus accipiter, in this case Accipiter nisus, aka the sparrowhawk. In the UK and across most of Europe, it’s the smaller of just two members of the genus, the other being the much rarer goshawk.
After decades of persecution by gamekeepers and poisoning as the result of pesticides finding their way into the food chain, they’re actually doing pretty well now. Not quite as common or widespread as the kestrel, which, is now suffering serious declines, or that bane of the rabbit population, the buzzard, but getting there. Many, maybe most sightings, will be of one circling slowly, wings spread, over a wood or copse, as it spies out an approach route to its likely prey. Hawk Roosting, a poem by former British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, is curiously unspecific about species, given that Hughes was a keen countryman, but for me, it fits a sparrowhawk spying out the land better than anything.
Sometimes, though, it’s all much more immediate than that. You’re watching your garden feeders, say, when a dark shape bounces over the hedge from next door and sends the finches and tits scattering for cover. If you’re lucky/unlucky (depending upon your feelings about cute garden songsters), it will grab one in a display of ruthlessly efficient predation.
Although, to digress for a moment, hawks are not always so efficient. Female sparrowhawks are considerably larger than the males, which emboldens them to attack prey as large as magpies, carrion crows, or, more often, collared doves and woodpigeons. None of these are easy for the sparrowhawk to dispatch quickly, though, and the latter in particular are bulky birds that occasionally belie their reputation for being a bit dumb. Stories of sparrowhawks starting to eat pigeons and doves alive abound, but my only experience of something like this was going to the window one day to see a female sparrowhawk starting to vigorously pluck the feathers from a woodpigeon’s breast as the bird lay absolutely motionless. Thing is, “woodies” have an awful lot of feathers to get through—designed in part to detach when a predator tries to grab them—and the hawk was, I suspect, still some considerable way from reaching bare skin when the pigeon suddenly and miraculously revived, having lain doggo for five minutes or more. Sheer bulk and surprise loosened the hawk’s grip; the pigeon took to the air, and the raptor was left there staring even more furiously than ever.
But in the picture above, the sparrowhawk (or sprawk, as British birders inevitably shorten it) was successful, grabbing a young blackbird along a canal towpath earlier this year. Such small birds have no chance of surviving the grip of a female hawk, and so this particular thrush ended his life, like so many before him, as takeaway for an accipiter.
I was thinking about this sighting last week, when twice within half an hour, a female sprawk flashed in and out of my life. First, as my girlfriend drove us to the shops, one sailed low over the lane just feet in front of us, lifting slightly to clear the hedge on either side. Then, when we stopped for a stroll at a small nature reserve on the way back, another darted low across a little pool, drawing surprisingly little reaction from the moorhens and mallards, but sending every small passerine into hiding, and a green woodpecker into a mad, cackling panic. There’s always something thrilling about such an encounter, and yet sparrowhawks will never quite win my affections in the same way as our other common small raptor, the aforementioned kestrel.
In part that’s because a pair of kestrels that nested near my home were what, more than anything, got me interested in birds and birding, at the age of eight. But it’s also because of their difference in approach. Kestrels are occasionally seen perched on utility poles or bare trees next to the road, but what makes them familiar to even non-birding Britons is their main hunting method: hovering. They turn into the wind, body inclined at around 45 degrees and tail fanned, then hold their position with just the right amount of wing movement. Other birds hover, but none do it so expertly. Research has shown that the head remains perfectly still, allowing the kestrel to locate its prey. The Windhover, by late-19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, captures this superbly, as well as immortalising the old country name for the species.
When it stoops, it drops quickly but carefully, usually stopping to hover again and relocate its target as it gets closer to the ground, before finally grabbing whichever unfortunate vole, mouse, beetle or occasionally bird it has set its sights upon. At the weekend, out walking in Suffolk, we watched a female kestrel methodically working a large sheep field. Where the sparrowhawk’s approach is all about surprise, the kestrel’s is down to persistence and playing the percentages, and in this case, it worked, with half a dozen failures finally rewarded with a plump rodent of some sort.
Both species, I think, have something to teach the birdwatcher and the poet. A lot of the time, it is all about sticking to what works for you, assessing the situation carefully, and not being afraid to stop and start again if necessary. It’s about never giving up and trusting that something will turn up. But occasionally, it’s also about dashing straight to the heart of the matter, to the thrilling, vital, visceral core of life, and snatching what you need to sustain you through the quieter times.
Sparrowhawks know exactly what that’s like.
About the Author
Matt is the editor of Bird Watching Magazine (UK), and the writer of three collections of poetry - Troy Town (Arrowhead Press, 2008), hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica (Nine Arches Press, 2010) and The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches, 2013). He lives near Leicester, England, and blogs at http://polyolbion.blogspot.co.uk