Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Also known as: European sparrowhawk, sparrowhawk
French: Epervier d'Europe
GenusAccipiter (1)
SizeLength: 28 – 38 cm (2)
Male weight: 110 – 196 g (2)
Female weight: 185 – 342 g (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

One of the most widespread diurnal raptor species (4), the Eurasian sparrowhawk is small-bodied, with relatively short, rounded wings, long legs and a strongly hooked beak (5). The male is dark grey above, with a pale line above the eye and a white patch on the chin, while the underparts are pale and distinctively marked with fine reddish-brown barring. The female is significantly larger than the male, with darker, browner plumage above and white plumage below, with grey barring (2) (5). Both sexes also have reddish tinged cheeks and flanks. The juvenile Eurasian sparrowhawk resembles the adult female, but has browner upperparts, with rusty feather margins, and broader barring on the underparts. There are six subspecies of Eurasian sparrowhawk, which can be separated by size, colouration and density of barring (2).

The Eurasian sparrowhawk has an extremely large range encompassing most of Europe and Asia. Subspecies Accipiter nisus nisus breeds in Europe and Asia Minor, east to western Siberia, and migrates southwards to spend the winter in north-east Africa, the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula (2) (6). Accipiter nisus nisosimilis breeds in central and eastern Asia, and winters in India, Sri Lanka and Indochina. The remaining four subspecies are either partially migratory or sedentary: Accipiter nisus melaschistos occupies the Himalayas and mountains of central Asia; Accipiter nisus wolterstorffi inhabits Corsica and Sardinia; Accipiter nisus granti is found in Madeira and the Canary Islands; and Accipiter nisus punicus occurs in north-west Africa, from Morocco to Tunisia (2).

The Eurasian sparrowhawk breeds in forests and wooded areas, particularly favouring areas consisting of a mixture of woodland and open patches in which to hunt. During winter, this species occupies a greater variety of habitats, and may be found in areas with very few trees. It occupies a range of altitudes, from sea-level to mountainous regions (2).

A bird-hunting specialist, the diet of the Eurasian sparrowhawk consists almost exclusively of small and medium-sized birds (2). A huge variety of species are taken, for example in Europe, smaller birds such as finches, sparrows, buntings, larks and tits are typical prey items, along with larger species such as pigeons and gamebirds (2) (4). As a result of its larger size, the adult female Eurasian sparrowhawk generally takes larger prey than the male (4). Hunting tactics usually involve surprise attacks, either dashing out from a concealed perch or flying low along hedges, streams and woodland edges, before making a sudden change in direction and snatching prey with its powerful talons (2) (7).

The Eurasian sparrowhawk’s breeding season occurs between mid-April and the end of August, according to latitude (7), and coincides with the maximum availability of nestlings and young of its preferred prey species (2). The breeding pair constructs a nest in the lower crown of a tree on a fork or branch, usually in woodland bordering a clearing. The nest comprises a platform of sticks, in which the female lays a clutch of between three to six eggs (2). After an incubation period of around 32 to 34 days, the chicks hatch and are brooded by the female, while the male supplies food for around three weeks, after which time both parent birds provide food (2) (5). Fledging occurs around one month after hatching, but the young continue to be fed by the parent birds for a further three to four weeks. Sexual maturity is reached between one and three years old, and the lifespan is typically seven years (2).

As a result of persecution and the widespread use of organochlorine pesticides during the 1950s and 1960s, the Eurasian sparrowhawk underwent a catastrophic decline in Europe. Fortunately, since the imposition of bans on the use of these pesticides in European countries between the 1960s and 1970s, along with changing attitudes towards this species, it has made a dramatic recovery (2). The global population, which is estimated to number around 1.5 million birds, is now considered to be stable and is not facing any significant threats (6).

The Eurasian sparrowhawk occurs in a number of protected areas throughout its extensive range (8), such as Garajonay National Park in the Canary Islands (6).

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  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2008)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume Two: New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. CITES (December, 2008)
  4. Global Raptor Information Network. (2009) Species account: Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus. Peregrine Fund, Boise. Available at:
  5. Burton, M. and Burton, R. (2002) International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Marshall Cavendish, New York.
  6. BirdLife International (July, 2009)
  7. Ferguson-Lees, J. and Christie, D.A. (2001) Raptors of the World: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Prey of the World. Houghton Mifflin, New York.
  8. World Database on Protected Areas (July, 2009)