The Sparrowhawk is a smallish, agile bird of prey which is widespread across Northern Europe. Typically a bird of open countryside, woodland and hedgerows, the Sparrowhawk is now an increasingly familiar visitor to both rural and urban gardens.
Male and female Sparrowhawks differ markedly in plumage markings and size but they both share broad, blunt, shortish wings, a small-headed look and a long square-ended tail. They both have a dark-tipped hooked beak with a yellow base, yellow-orange eyes and yellow legs and feet with dark claws. Their appearance and dashing flight readily distinguish them from other birds.
A male Sparrowhawk is clearly smaller than the female. The upperparts are wholly blue-grey except for white lores and supercilium, russet cheeks, dark bars on the tail and dark wing tips. The underparts are finely barred orangey-red from the throat to the belly. The vent and undertail-coverts are white, and the undertail itself is greyish with darker barring. The white tip to the tail is also visible.
Female Sparrowhawks are the larger of the two sexes. The upperparts are wholly dark grey-brown except for a white supercilium and blackish-looking bars on the tail. The underparts show a white base colour and fine grey horizontal barring from the upper breast to the belly. The undertail-coverts are white. The tail is whitish with darker bars. Females tend to have a more striking yellow eye than the male Sparrowhawk.
The bluey upperparts and finely barred orange underparts are easily seen when a male Sparrowhawk flies. The underwing shows greyish barring on the secondaries and primaries. In flight, the wing shape, size of the head and tail are to be noted.
The dark brown-grey upperparts and strong tail bars of the female are very obvious in flight. The fine barring of the belly and forewings contrasts with the coarse markings on the remainder of the underwing and undertail. Sparrowhawks fly with quick bursts of rapid wingbeats interspersed with short glides. When soaring, they look flat-winged and the tail is only occasionally fanned.
Sparrowhawks are particularly adept at dashing through woodlands, along hedges and through gardens at great speed, and if successful will often take the prey to a plucking post. On the post, the Sparrowhawk will tear feathers from the corpse and take flesh back to a mate or to youngsters in a nest. If a post is not available, a Sparrowhawk will often perform its grisly act at the scene of the capture.
Juvenile Sparrowhawks can be recognised and separated from adults by browner upperparts, often with fresh rufous edges, and brownish-buff barring on the underparts, although juvenile males tend to show some rufous on the belly and breast. The eyes are greener than those of adults.