There has been a sparrowhawk patrolling the garden for many years. There are usually just fleeting glances or evidence of a meal partaken on the lawn. However, a few days ago I got lucky and managed to take a photograph of her.
Sparrowhawks are small birds of prey, their ability to manoeuvre around enclosed spaces makes them a common garden bird. They have one of the largest disparities in gender size of any bird, the females being 25% larger than the males. The males have blue-grey backs and more orange on their fronts than the females. The males tend to prey on smaller garden birds, such as sparrows (hence the name), finches and tits. The females, one of which I believe I have photographed here, are able to take larger prey such as doves and pigeons.The sparrowhawk population crashed after World War II, due to the use of organochlorine insecticides. Once these had been banned in 1975, the population recovered and they are now one of the commonest birds of prey in Europe. Let us hope that we are in time to save the bees from the pesticides that are wiping them out.
They have been blamed for the decrease in song birds since the war, but there is no scientific evidence for this. I suspect loss of habitat and the domestic cat are more culpable. They are also disliked by pigeon racers and fanciers, although they have been found to be responsible for less than 1% of racing pigeon deaths.
Having caught their prey, the sparrowhawk will then pluck the feathers and tear it apart to eat it. The tell tale signs of a sparrowhawk picnicking upon your lawn are a circle of feathers, occasionally with a leg left in the middle. Here are the remains of the pigeon that she had been feasting upon. Small birds are usually squeezed to death in the grip of the sparrowhawk’s talons, but larger birds can be plucked and eaten alive.
You can usually tell when the sparrowhawk is around, even if you cannot spot them yourself. The blackbirds and smaller songbirds will be frantically giving their alarm calls. On this occasion I noticed that the flock of pigeons that is usually sitting on the roof waiting to be fed, was circling up in the air.
Medieval falconers called the male sparrowhawk a musket, from the Latin musca, meaning a fly. Later crossbow bolts and then firearms and cannons were named muskets, being small, fast and deadly. According to “The Boke of St Albans” section on hawking; the sparrowhawk (meaning the female) was suitable for a priest, but the holy water clerk could only handle the musket (the male) and famously, a kestrel for a knave. This of course is the title of the book by Barry Hines that was made into the film “Kes”. “A Kestrel for a Knave” is still in copyright, but “The Boke of St Albans” is not and can be accessed here.The British, Gloster Aircraft Company made a single seater fighter aircraft in the 1920, for the Japanese Imperial Army named a Gloster Sparrowhawk. It was designed to be launched by catapult from battleships.
I shall leave you with a quote from a song by Thomas Weelkes, an Elizabethan composer and organist at Winchester Cathedral. He was often in trouble for blasphemy and drunkeness:
A sparrowhawk proud did hold in wicked jail
Music’s sweet chorister, the nightingale,
To whom with sighs she said: “O set me free!
And in my song I’ll praise no bird but thee.”
The hawk replied, “I will not lose my diet
To let a thousand such enjoy their quiet.”