Sparrowhawks are supreme songbird predators. It is the only woodland raptor in Europe which primarily eats small birds. Their size, shape, slim body, long tail and short broad wings, give it the edge over its songbird prey. From their varied hunting techniques, to counter shading and disruptive colourisation for concealment, great manoeuvrability in the confines of woodlands and speed of attack, all make it an efficient songbird predator. It is equipped with long legs and claws, with three different front toes, the long needle like claws of two of which can be used as pincers, with a shorter thicker rear toe, the sparrowhawk has adapted well to grasp and hold its prey. Even given all of these factors, sparrowhawks often have difficulty feeding themselves as small birds have developed various defences, some of which are highly effective and only a small fraction of sparrowhawk attacks are successful.
Hunting strategies and techniques
To counter songbird defensive strategies, sparrowhawks have developed different hunting techniques which scientists have described as: short-stay-perch hunting, high soaring and stooping, contour -hugging flight, still-hunting, low quartering, hunting by sound and hunting on foot. It is this latter technique that I was very fortunate to observe on Christmas Day.
A pair of sparrowhawks were nesting about half a mile away in a woodlands. They do not nest in every kind of woodland. This was a deciduous woodland, with open spaces and around it. These birds are selective. It is not a choice of tree species or size of the wood. The internal structure, ideally offering plenty of cover, with enough open spaces between trunks and branches, to allow easy flight to search for and attack prey. Dense woodland would inhibit such flight, woodland thinned too often would offer less cover to ambushing and would be unlikely to be used for nesting as it would be ‘too open’. The age and management are the main factors which determine the nest site and how long it would be used as such. Highly like this was one of the birds that nested earlier in the year.
- Note the sparrowhawk is not looking up into the sky as they often do when looking for small birds flying overhead. Nor, as is often the case when they use this technique, is it trying to conceal itself from birds. Usually they find cover from which to observe birds and then make a surprise attack. This bird is not displaying anything of the kind here. It has not read the scientific books! Something may have caught its interest. I have various feeders throughout the garden, but birds may not have been on its mind just then.
Providing predator cover whilst feeding garden birds
The Kilmarnock willow, lavender bushes and flower trough disrupt a predator’s line of attack
The ground feeder is underneath the Kilmarnock willow, providing cover for birds and helps by disrupting a direct line of attack, as does the positioning of the green plant trough. The lavender bushes offers the same protection with the added bonus in that they give birds the opportunity to find cover if attacked by a predator. The ground feeding tray gives shy birds, such as the dunnock, a feeding station away from the main bird feeding area where many of the larger birds can be found.
Other wildlife visitors
As a consequence of the design and planting of my small but wildlife friendly garden, besides birds I have wood and house mouse visitors. They never feed together nor have I seen them fighting, or even visiting at the same time. They both help themselves to bird seed on the floor at different times during the day and easily climb onto the ground feeding tray, a skill put to many other uses other besides obtaining and searching for food as you will read shortly.
However there is not always enough food for them so they try other techniques to steal my bird food. This large blue plastic barrel was kept inside the garage yet a wood mouse climbed inside it!
- Yet some mice are just not satisfied with the seeds under the bird feeders nor on the ground feeding tray. Somehow they still managed to climb up onto the black plastic bin lid. I have seen them climb walls so I suspect this is what they did.
- The bin lid had numerous bite marks on it, but how did they manage to stay on the lid and not slide off?
- Mice have completely chewed through the lid but failed to get inside as there was no evidence at all inside the bin. It would have been very difficult for them to get out though through the small hole once they had gorged themselves!
- House mouse breaking cover to get to the food near the ground feeding tray…
I have noticed more and more that the sparrowhawk visiting the garden, was using the fence as an observation perch, just sitting on the fence in open view. Usually sparrowhawks conceal themselves in cover and observe the birds using feeders, ponds etc., then they undertake a surprise attack. When using the binoculars I can definitely see that it was looking at the ground whilst on the fence. I recorded one sparrowhawk stayed for 16 minutes just sitting and watching. This is quite a long time for such a bird to stay in the open.
The black bin used to store the bird seed is just a few feet away to the left…..
Unusual Christmas present!
I have been watching birds in my garden for many years so when I first heard about the BTO Garden Birdwatch scheme, I joined. If my simple pleasure of watching wild birds in the garden could be used by scientists to further their knowledge which in turn would assist those giving me that pleasure, well it just made sense to me! A GBW subscription would make a lovely present! Very occasionally in life you are fortunate enough to witness a rare incident as it actually occurs in nature and rarely seen by many people. I had one of those rare occasions myself on Christmas Day morning. What a great Christmas present!
Different hunting strategy witnessed
Christmas morning was no different from most mornings whilst I was looking out through the patio window, except for me eating a mince pie with my cup of coffee! I was watching a mouse at it moved around eating small seeds on the floor around the ground feeder tray. Nothing unusual in that though. Suddenly a sparrowhawk came at speed from above the garden fence swooping below to where the mouse was feeding and pounced on it trying to snatch it from the ground. The drooping willow branches proved to be an obstacle for this initial attack and saved the mouse from almost certain death as they slowed the sparrowhawks movement. This short period of time gave the mouse the opportunity to scurry away making a dash towards the nearby lavender bush, where it hid under the stalks near to the main stem and remained stationary on the floor. The sparrowhawk ran along the ground and tried to grab the mouse with one claw as it ran away. Then it started probing in the gap underneath the lavender twigs, but missed.
This second attack proved a bit too close for comfort for the terrified mouse, which started to climb up and into the lavender bush, sitting in the middle of it perched on the small lavender twigs. The sparrowhawk ran on the floor around the lavender bush, tried to grasp the mouse, by itself climbing the bush and using one of its feet and claws to lunge at it, bobbing and weaving its head trying to keep the mouse in its view, moving around the lavender bush and probing again. It really was a deadly game of hide and seek. It kept on trying to gram the mouse by lunging its claw in between the lavender twigs. I could see its claw opening and closing in a pincer-like movement trying to stab and grab the mouse with its needle like claw. The mouse, kept on moving deeper into the middle, thicker part of the lavender bush, where it stayed out of reach.
The sparowhawk ran along the floor to the wooden boards, as seen above, to block off its escape, still trying to grab the mouse, which moved further away from the claw. Then the quick witted mouse climbed through the lavender bush to the side away from the sparrowhawk, jumped to the ground and ran under the planks, making good its escape. The sparrowhawk, stayed for a very short time, peering in the vicinity, around the lavender bush and flew to the fence and stayed for several minutes, before flying off.
I have watched a similar method of attack before a few years ago. In this case the sparrowhawk missed the sparrows as it swooped upon them as they were feeding on bird feeders.They flew into my ivy covered 6 foot wooden fence, a few feet away. The sparrowhawk then dived into the ivy, near to where the majority of sparrows had bolted, clung onto the ivy and literally started to ‘fish’ around with one of its claws. It was successful and flew away with a sparrow in its deadly grasp.
The attack for the mouse did surprise me and I always thought that they would only prey on songbirds. However, researchers have shown that young rabbits, bank voles and field voles are also eaten, though in small numbers. I can now add, almost (!) mice to that list! Being a wild opportunistic predator and if something is available, I should not have been so surprised though!
For more information about sparrowhawks view this PDF…. .sparrowhawkGBW
For more information about the BTO Garden Birdwatch scheme go to…. http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw
If you have enjoyed this article I am sure you would enjoy participating in the Garden Birdwatch scheme...you too may have one of those rare wildlife moments in your life!
Refs: Besides my own experiences, photographs, observations and knowledge….
Newton I, (1986) ” The Sparrowhawk”, T & A D Poyser, Waterhouses, Staffs.
Photograph of sparrowhawk on fence taken by my neighbour Trisha Newman. Thanks Trish!
Sparrowhawk eating mouse from Dave Cully’s excellent DVD The Secret Life of the Sparrowhawk