The sparrowhawk is the most commonly reported bird of prey in gardens. They have short, broad wings relative to similar species. Males have slate-grey backs and white under-parts, barred with orange. Females have brown backs and have dark bars on their white under-parts.
They have a shrieking kew-kew-kew-kew call.
A few other birds of prey can be mistaken for sparrowhawks. The two that are most likely to be seen in the garden are the peregrine falcon and the kestrel. Both of these can be distinguished fairly easily; if you have a good view of a perching bird then look at the eyes. Sparrowhawks have orange or yellow irises, whereas both kestrels and peregrines have completely dark eyes. Peregrines are most likely to be mistaken for male sparrowhawks due to their grey colouration, however peregrines are more of a blue-grey, and can also be distinguished by their black 'moustache' marking. Kestrels have a rusty brown colour so may be mistaken for female sparrowhawks, however the kestrel has a richer colour and is much smaller. They also tend to hover, which the sparrowhawk never does.
Females are considerably larger than males, at 35-41cm (14-16in) in length with 67-80cm (27-32in) wingspan. Males are generally 29-34cm (11 ½-13 1/2in) long with a wingspan of 59-64cm (23 ½-25 1/2in).
Sparrowhawks are resident to the UK. They are widespread, found almost everywhere except for some areas of the Scottish Highlands as well as the more remote Scottish islands.
Legally, sparrowhawks are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. This makes it an offense to kill or injure a bird, or to in any way damage or remove a nest or its contents. Sparrowhawks are not considered to be threatened and numbers are actually increasing fairly rapidly. In the past sparrowhawk numbers suffered as a result of persecution and habitat loss, and populations crashed as a result of pesticide usage, particularly DDT. So the current increase in numbers is a sign of population recovery.
Sparrowhawks favour wooded areas and can also be found in hedgerows, parks and gardens. Locations with good populations of small birds are a favourite.
Where to find them in the garden
Look for them swooping across the garden in pursuit of prey, or soaring high overhead. You are also likely to see them perched on a good vantage point, scouting the area. If all the birds in the garden suddenly panic and disappear, it may be that there is a sparrowhawk on the prowl. Keep an eye on your small birds and you may witness a sparrowhawk swooping in for the kill.
Role in the garden
Sparrowhawks are attracted to domestic gardens because they find - and kill - small birds there. Not surprisingly, this makes them unwelcome garden visitors in many people's eyes. Often people will attribute declines in small bird populations to predators such as the sparrowhawk. However it is important to remember that the predator-prey relationship is a natural, self-regulating system. Sparrowhawks generally take weaker birds that are unlikely to survive otherwise, and therefore are unlikely to greatly reduce small bird populations unless other factors have severely weakened the populations first. The sheer beauty, and sudden surprise of swift movement as a sparrowhawk swoops, may be some consolation, and to some it may be exhilarating to observe.