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  • Writer's pictureNick Bartrum

Let Sleeping Hawks Lie

Updated: Oct 3, 2019

Young sparrowhawks on the nest.

A Sparrowhawk embodies a wildness otherwise absent from the English landscape. To see one is to witness a defiant last stand of the wild in our diminished (and overmanaged) countryside. When a hawk speeds low across the field, over the hedge and into the garden (or through a woodland glade) it splinters the air, creating a super-charged frisson, sending other birds into a panic stricken phrenzy.

They are much misunderstood and maligned as being the peril of songbirds, and are often blamed for an irrevocable decline in the nation’s favourite garden birds, such as the blackbird. This in part due to the fact that they are a specialist hunter of small (and medium sized) birds and they make no distinction between deep woodland or genteel suburban garden, bringing ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ rawness right to the doorstep. Uncomfortably so for some who like their nature well-ordered, preferring not to be reminded of the true character of Nature.


Tim Major

Blaming them (and other birds, such as corvids) for the demise of songbirds is misguided, and illustrates how many maintain either prejudice, or a fundamental misunderstanding of the behavioural ecology of sparrowhawks, and the dynamic relationships between avian species, or both.

I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.

Inaction, no falsifying dream

Between my hooked head and hooked feet:

Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.

Ted Hughes, Hawk Roosting (extract)

At a quiet location in the Lincolnshire countryside, a small densely wooded copse among hedgerows and arable fields is home to a family of sparrowhawks. Conversation stops as we reach the wood and we creep on tip toe to the hide.

Six metres may not seem much. Six springing steps or a hop, a skip and a jump, and you’re there. Vertically however, it’s a different prospect. The hawks have chosen to nest six metres up in the bow of a tree. The climb up the tower hide is steep, and I’m surprised at just how close it is to the nest. It isn’t luxurious in the hide, just a tatty old office chair, and a throw over camouflaged cover, with a few small portals in it for a camera. The exit is blocked by a large timber pole resting horizontally on the scaffold, as a reminder of the sheer drop that is inches away. It isn’t for the feint hearted. Here I am, on my own precarious perch, with just the hawks and the cooing pigeons for company.

A sparrowhawk's nest.

The nest is a ragged pile of loosely woven sticks, but it’s wedged firmly between three sturdy branches in a secure and sheltered place. I can hear the insistent whimpering mew of the young hawks. There are four of them just yards away, but they are completely concealed by foliage and branches. I’m so excited, I crane in (and out of) my seat to try and peer through the tiny holes, itching to catch a glimpse.

Before long two hawks return to the nest and settle down. I’m still fumbling to set up my camera as quietly as I can, but they are completely at ease and to my astonishment they fall asleep. Settled, they roost for a full thirty minutes. These are bewitching moments, watching these young hawks in their easy repose. What exactly do they dream of… ‘Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.’

They stir and begin to preen each other and there is a tenderness between them that is both poignant and surprising. It is something I hadn’t expected. There is a closeness between these siblings, the way they huddle together, shuffle and fidget until comfortable, preen and groom each other. They look, as much as a sparrowhawk can, content and domesticated.

It belies the fact that they will soon be out in the big (and often bad for birds of prey) wide world, essentially competing with one another for resources, such as food and suitable habitat. They appear a world away from the high velocity, needle taloned terror of passerines that everybody knows.

A sudden concussion of loud and persistent mewing from an adult snaps the juvenile hawks into focus and they are out of the nest, vigorously calling and begging for food. The only frustration for me is that they are not fed at the nest! I have missed this spectacle by just one day.

My feet are locked upon the rough bark.

It took the whole of Creation

To produce my foot, my each feather:

Now I hold Creation in my foot

Ted Hughes, Hawk Roosting (extract)

After a while the youngsters return to perches near the nest, but not to the nest itself. They rest, digest their meal and preen feathers. Their markings are beginning to become defined, the distinctive baring across the breast and the pale stripe along the brow. They are all tawny buff colours, rusty, pinkie oranges, greys and umbers. Yellow legs with deep black billhooks for talons. Their white juvenile feathers still scruffily protrude in distinct patches.

Juvenile sparrowhawk.

One of the juvenile hawks stirring after hearing the adult's call.

They are more alert, curious and watchful of every sight and aware of every sound. It won’t be long now before the adults return less often with food, the youngsters will have to be self-sufficient and learn to hunt for themselves. Only two-thirds of young sparrowhawks survive their first year, but if they do, they will attempt to breed in the following spring.

My love of the sparrowhawk is profound. To me it is the distilled essence of the wild, persisting against all odds. I am obviously not alone in my admiration. Artists have been inspired by this diminutive raptor, from Jacopo de’ Barbari in the 16th Century, William MacGillivray in the 19th Century, and more recently artists such as Karl Martens and Angela Harding.

A Sparrowhawk by Jacopo de' Barbari

A Sparrowhawk, 1510s, Jacopo de' Barbari, (click to discover more)

Eurasian sparrowhawk by William MacGillivray

Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)From 'Watercolour drawings of British Animals' (1831-1841) by Scottish naturalist William MacGillivray.

Sparrowhawk by Karl Martens


Karl Martens

I recently returned from the British Birdwatching Fair (Birdfair) at Rutland Water and I couldn’t resist this wonderfully evocative print by Nik Pollard. A sharp edged and crisp clawed design, which I felt captured the spirit of the sparrowhawk perfectly.


Nik Pollard

I am in the hide for five hours, watching and listening. It’s clear that over the course of just this one session that the young hawks are dispersing, moving further and further away. They are branching out, scrutinising the confines of the wood and pushing the boundaries of their world.

Branching out.

Hawk Roosting

I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.

Inaction, no falsifying dream

Between my hooked head and hooked feet:

Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.

The convenience of the high trees!

The air's bouyancy and the sun's ray

Are of advantage to me;

And the earth's face upward for my inspection.

My feet are locked upon the rough bark.

It took the whole of Creation

To produce my foot, my each feather:

Now I hold Creation in my foot

Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly -

I kill where I please because it is all mine.

There is no sophistry in my body:

My manners are tearing off heads -

The allotment of death.

For the one path of my flight is direct

Through the bones of the living.

No arguments assert my right:

The sun is behind me.

Nothing has changed since I began.

My eye has permitted no change.

I am going to keep things like this.

Ted Hughes

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