I posted a picture on twitpic last weekend taken of a Sparrowhawk flying in acrobatic fashion around our feeding station. It was, as always, an exciting and spectacular visit with the shear speed and aeronautical ability of the bird in flight a joy to behold.
The Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) is a surprisingly common bird, ranging in its habitat from woodland and country hedgerows to suburban parks and gardens. There are an estimated 40,000 breeding pairs in the UK, making it the second most common British bird of prey behind Kestrels. As their name suggests they feed on small birds, with the larger female capable of taking larger victims, up to the size of pigeons.
There are a few local names – blue hawk (Stirlingshire, East Lothian, West Yorkshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire); blue merlin (Perth); gleg hawk (Renfrewshire); gold tip (Yorkshire), hedge hawk; maalin (Shetland); pigeon hawk (Yorkshire); spar hawk (Scotland, Surrey); spare hawk, spur hawk, stannin hawk (Scotland, Yorkshire); stone falcon (Sussex).
Two historic references to the bird caught my eye. The first is from John Aubrey (1626-97), the widely travelled naturalist and antiquarian who is associated with the Aubrey Stones of Stonehenge, who wrote in his Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects in 1696;
“Not long before the Death of King Charles II a Sparrow-Hawk escaped from the Perch and pitched on one of the Iron Crowns of the White Tower, and entangling its string in the Crown, hung by the heels and died. Twas considered very ominous, and so it proved”
There is also a possibly apocryphal story told of Joseph Paxton’s great glass Crystal Palace built for the 1851 Great Exhibition that was supposedly plagued by sparrows. So concerned was Queen Victoria by the number of sparrows that she sent for the Duke of Wellington, possibly thinking that he would send soldiers to scare them off. Shooting them in a glass building was clearly out of the question. The Iron Duke’s response – “Sparrowhawks Ma’am”
Sources: RSPB and Fauna Britanica – Stefan Buczacki