Shorter days and cold weather draw buz­zards, spar­rowhawks and red kites closer to gar­dens

Garden News (UK) - - Contents - With Ju­lian Rollins

Gar­den bird­ers of­ten get up­set when a spar­rowhawk chooses to am­bush ‘their’ small birds. You get at­tached to reg­u­lar vis­i­tors, so it’s sad to see one be­com­ing a preda­tor’s lunch.

But, of course, ev­ery­thing has to eat, and win­ter is a dif­fi­cult time for birds of prey. Low tem­per­a­tures mean they need to take in more calo­ries, but short days and poor weather limit op­por­tu­ni­ties to hunt.

It does mean you’re more likely to see a hawk in your gar­den, or on a coun­try walk. Of the UK’s 10 hawks, kites and ea­gles, the three that you’re most likely to see in and around where most of us live are buz­zards, red kites and, of course, spar­rowhawks.


Of the three, the most com­mon is the buzzard, which now breeds in ev­ery county. There are thought to be up to 79,000 breed­ing pairs. Buz­zards usu­ally sit out rainy days and do their hunt­ing when the weather’s fine. They soar high above the coun­try­side on wings they flap as rarely as pos­si­ble. Su­per-sharp eye­sight means they can spot a pos­si­ble meal. That can be a small an­i­mal or bird, or may be road­kill.


By con­trast, spar­rowhawks are up close and per­sonal. They spe­cialise in am­bush­ing small birds, of­ten ap­proach­ing from be­hind some sort of cover, like a hedge. A spar­rowhawk that has a blue-grey back and wings is a male, while one with a brown back and wings is a fe­male, or a ju­ve­nile. Males are a lit­tle smaller and can catch prey up to thrush-size, while the big­ger fe­males can tackle any­thing up to the size of a pi­geon. There are around 35,000 UK breed­ing pairs, but their stealthy habits mean they’re less no­tice­able than buz­zards.

Red kite

The last mem­ber of this trio is far rarer than the other two, but it makes it­self very vis­i­ble – and of­ten flies over towns and cities.

In the mid-20th cen­tury the red kite was close to ex­tinc­tion, but has man­aged to make a re­mark­able come­back. Now it’s thought there are close to 2,000 breed­ing pairs, many of them liv­ing in mid­dle Eng­land. In­deed, gar­den feed­ing has taught kites that it’s worth do­ing a daily ‘coun­try-to-town’ com­mute for the tasty tit­bits that are on of­fer. It’s hard to miss kites when they’re around. Like buz­zards, they soar on out­stretched wings. But a kite’s wings (175-179cm/69–70in wing­span) look al­most too big for its body.

To tell in-flight kites and buz­zards apart, look at a bird’s tail. If it’s V-shaped you’re look­ing at a kite, while a fan-shaped tail means you’re watch­ing a buzzard.

Red kites soar above gar­dens look­ing for a meal

Buz­zards are more com­mon than oth­ers

Spar­rowhawks have a rac­tive blue-grey and pink feath­ers

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