There is something quietly powerful about a hunting sparrowhawk. The compact body and short broad wings provide the strength and agility needed by this woodland predator. While it may lack the raw speed seen in the hobby, the sparrowhawk is still an effective hunter, more often than not taking its prey by surprise. Pursuits are usually made at low level, the bird twisting and turning to emerge close to where feeding birds are likely to be gathered. Individual sparrowhawks appear quick to learn the sites where favoured prey gather and birds may target roosting starlings and waders or the finches attracted to garden feeding stations.
Sparrowhawks can often be seen drifting over an area at height, perhaps hoping to pick out feeding opportunities, but at other times they show their adaptability by hunting on foot, something which may surprise observers fortunate enough to witness such behaviour. I once witnessed a sparrowhawk working the base of a hedgerow in such a manner but I couldn’t work out what it was after. It may have been a mouse or vole, or perhaps a wren or dunnock, that it was attempting to flush from cover. I have also received a few reports over the years from observers who have witnessed hunting sparrowhawks attempting to flush small birds from the thick bushes in which they have sought shelter. The hawk may fly at the bush, attempt to push its way inside or circle the bush to seek a better angle of attack. Persistence doesn’t always pay off, however, and it seems that the smaller birds often trust the security provided by thick cover and simply sit tight until the sparrowhawk gets bored and leaves to pursue feeding opportunities elsewhere.
As with many other predators, sparrowhawks may spend time loafing, perhaps dozing on a favoured perch or sitting quietly in the sun. When they do, it provides an opportunity to take in the structure and plumage of these birds, to pick out the piercing eye, the surprisingly long legs and the curving talons that so often deliver the coup-de-grace to an unfortunate victim. Hawks are part of the natural system and, while a kill can be hard to witness, these remain one of our most of striking birds.