While many hawks prey on other birds, this little raptor has a reputation for killing songbirds — just the sort of cute little chirpers you might set out seed for.
Though this is true, it hardly gives a fair representation of the sparrowhawk, or of its diet. To set things straight, we’ll start with the question, what do sparrowhawks eat?
Sparrowhawks mainly eat small birds, as their name clearly suggests, rodents, small mammals and insects — or at least the males do.
Female sparrowhawks dwarf their male counterparts, measuring 25% or larger in size. Consequently, they hunt for larger meals to support that extra weight.
In either case, they aren’t decimating these bird populations, as the droves of sparrows and pigeons swarming every errant crust of bread should illustrate.
It may surprise you to learn that sparrowhawk predation is actually beneficial to their prey species.
The sparrowhawk is a master of the hunt. It has evolved numerous methods to allow it to catch and to kill other birds. Sometimes, it soars high up and stoops in for the kill, in a familiar way.
But, more often, it waits, perched in the cover of hedges or leafy branches, then shoots out to take its prey by surprise.
It can thread its way around obstacles better than any other hawk, and may even run along the ground to avoid casting a telling shadow.
All of this is necessary to get the drop on the small passerines. Songbirds make for savvy prey, calling out distinctive warnings the moment a hawk, or the shadow of one, is sighted.
Sparrowhawks aren’t made for long chases, so they need the element of surprise to help them.
They must also choose the prey they have the best chance of catching, which is why males and females have different hunting preferences.
What do Male Sparrow Hawks Eat?
The male sparrowhawk is smaller, meaning it is faster, more agile, and requires less meat to fill its belly.
Their targets typically weigh between 40-120 g (1.4-4.2 oz), and they only need to eat 40-50 g a day to get by.
List of Birds Eaten by a Male Sparrow Hawk
But, even with all his tricks and tactics, the predator has a hard time catching such small and quick prey. Only 10% of his hunts end successfully.
Even then, it’s not usually the healthiest specimens that fall prey to this hawk’s talons. Like many predators, sparrowhawks find the most success capturing the weak, sick, or injured birds.
Of course, this also means that they will often capture fledgelings. During the summer months, as much as 40% of their diet is made up of such avian youngsters.
What Do Female Sparrowhawks Eat?
The size difference between male and female sparrowhawks is the largest of any bird. These brown feathered ladies are between 25-50% larger than their suitors.
All the extra weight gives the females more energy to draw upon for reproduction. In-flight, it significantly reduces their speed and manoeuvrability.
Because of this, they tend to hunt larger, slower targets. Their weight comes in handy here, granting them the power to manage such hefty prey as:
- Small Chickens
- Male Sparrowhawks
Yes, you read that right, they will eat other sparrowhawks. Once the breeding season has come to an end, both parents return to their solitary ways — and the male would do well not to linger.
Females of this species have to eat 50-70 g of meat a day, so they are often motivated by hunger to go for more dangerous meals.
Jackdaws, for instance, will come to the defence of one of their own, posing a real threat to a she-hawk attempting to complete a kill.
Both the male and female are careful eaters. They pluck away large feathers, and even feet, from their prey to minimize the amount of indigestible material they take in.
What Nutrients Do Sparrowhawks Need?
The sparrowhawks high poultry diet gives them everything that they need to survive and thrive.
The flesh is rich in protein to facilitate muscle development and strength, and the healthy fats provide energy and promote feather health.
The organs are great sources of vitamins and minerals, such as:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamins B-2, B-6, and B-12
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
Sparrowhawks also benefit from over a dozen amino acids contained in bird meat. There is a reason this is their ideal prey.
Rodents and Other Small Mammals
If birds can fill the sparrowhawk’s dietary requirements, you might wonder why they would bother to eat anything else.
The truth is, they probably wouldn’t if they could reliably catch their meal of choice.
But, when birds prove too elusive, other small mammals are a fine replacement meal.
They come in sizes amenable to both male and female sparrowhawks and are susceptible to the same hunting strategies.
Rodents also share the same habitats as passerines and ground birds, as they are equally dependent upon seeds and insects for food.
And, they are plentiful, making up the largest proportion of non-flying mammals.
List of Rodents & Mammals Sparrowhawks Eat
- Young Hares
Despite their ready availability, these animals make up only a small percentage of a sparrowhawk’s diet at any time. This is by design.
The hawk chooses its hunting grounds carefully. It looks for places where birds gather in high concentrations, with an eye for species that are loud, colourful, or otherwise easier to track and catch.
But, at the end of the day, the bird simply has to eat. Females, due to their extra weight, can last longer without eating, but no animal chooses to go hungry when a suitable meal is at hand.
Nutrition Value of Rodents & Mammals to Sparrowhawks
Mice, bats, rabbits and other small mammals do qualify as suitable meals, though not as ideal. Their protein content is slightly less than that of birds, and they contain more fat.
The fat content is useful as winter approaches. However, consuming more fat on a regular basis would cause more harm than good, especially for hawks that rely on speed and agility to hunt.
As for vitamins and minerals, birds tend to have a higher density of vitamins, with the exception of B-12. In contrast, other mammals contain more minerals.
The bottom line is that sparrowhawks can be satisfied by the occasional squirrel or rabbit, but there are nutritional trade-offs that explain why they don’t prefer this type of prey.
Insects and Other Invertebrates
For sparrowhawks, insects are generally a meal of last resort. Some may eat them more often than others, but none of them demonstrates a preference for these bite-sized meals.
Yet, when pickings are slim, a few crickets, spiders, or worms can provide the energy needed to keep up the hunt for the more substantial fare.
List of Insects & Invertebrates Sparrowhawks Eat
A sparrowhawk’s extreme hunting prowess is not required to catch this prey, which they can simply pluck up from branches or the ground. This makes bugs the perfect meal for hawks running low on energy.
Nutritional Value of Insects & Invertebrates to Sparrowhawks
The primary nutrients gained from invertebrates are protein and fat. By weight, they provide protein in amounts that can actually exceed that of other animals.
For instance, 100 g of crickets yields 68 g of protein, vs 21.3 g in the same amount of chicken. The bug in this scenario also provides more calcium, potassium, iron, and zinc.
Of course, the job of finding 100 g of crickets, or any bug, might well cost more energy than it’s worth for a sparrowhawk.
And, for all their positives, they are poor sources of vitamins A and C, niacin, and thiamin.
What Do Sparrowhawk Chicks Eat?
When sparrowhawks hatch, they only want one thing: meat. In fact, the breeding season for these birds is timed so that the chicks hatch when other birds’ fledgelings are just trying out their wings.
All those new fliers make perfect targets for the sparrowhawk dad, who has to hunt for himself, his mate, and 3-6 chicks. He needs every advantage he can get, considering that 10% success rate.
After 4 weeks, when the chicks begin to fledge, mom joins in the hunt.
Together, the parents provide their children with a steady supply of ready-to-eat birds and rodents until they can hunt for themselves.
Sparrowhawks are best suited to a particular prey, and yet they rarely succeed in catching any but the weakest of the bunch.
Because of them, only the strongest of the small birds survive. This ensures that the next generation is spawned from healthy, hearty parents, and has the best chance of survival.
So, while this bird of prey might just make a snack of your favourite songbird, try to remember — it’s probably for the best.
F.A.Q’s – Popular Sparrowhawk Diet Searches…
Do Sparrowhawks Eat Squirrels?
Yes, Sparrowhawks will eat squirrels. However, squirrels wouldn’t generally be a sparrowhawk’s 1st choice of food source due to their size but also their athleticism.
You would expect a female sparrowhawk to go after a squirrel rather than a male sparrowhawk due to the females being much larger and stronger.
Do Sparrowhawks Eat Pigeons?
Sparrowhawks will eat pigeons but the female sparrowhawk is much more likely to stalk a pigeon for a meal rather than male sparrowhawks.
As mentioned before, the female sparrowhawk is much larger and can take down a pigeon easier, although, both male and females would definitely ravish a wounded or sick pigeon.
Do Sparrowhawks Eat Hedgehogs?
Hedgehogs are just as ‘at risk’ of being eaten by sparrowhawks as other land mammals like mice, rats and voles.
The spiked back of a hedgehog may provide limited protection against a sparrowhawk but there’s nothing stopping the sparrowhawk from causing injury to the hedgehog to weaken it.
So, yes, sparrowhawks will and can eat hedgehogs, they may be a little bit more of a challenging meal than a vole or rodent but this bird of prey will not turn down a meaty meal..
Do Sparrowhawks Eat Chickens?
A fully grown chicken would be too much of a takedown for a male or female sparrowhawk but the answer to the question is, yes, sparrowhawks do eat chickens.
You would generally expect a sparrowhawk to go after a juvenile chicken as they’re much easier and smaller to target and would provide an easy meal.
Do Sparrowhawks Eat Cats?
The simple answer is no, sparrowhawks do not eat cats. Your feline friend is safe unless it decides to threaten the chicks of a sparrowhawk, which is unlikely.
Cats are far too large, strong and will provide a real fight for a sparrowhawk should they be targetted by mistake.
These occurrences would be very rare and the chance is that your cat would flee anyway.