Birds – American Sparrow Hawk

(Falco sparverius)


Length—10 to 11 inches. Sexes the same size.

Male—Top of head slaty blue, generally with a reddish spot on crown, and several black patches on sides and nape; back rufous, with a few black spots or none; wing coverts ashy blue with or without black spots; tail bright rufous, white tipped, and with a broad black band below it, the outer feathers white with black bars; under parts white or buff, sometimes spotted with black.

Female—Back, wing coverts, and tail rufous with numerous black bars; under parts plentifully streaked with dark brown.

Range—Eastern North America, from Great Slave Lake to north-ern South America. Nests from northern limits of range to Florida; winters from New jersey southward.

Season—Summer resident in the northern United States and Canada; March to October; winter or permanent resident south of New Jersey.

Perched on a high dead limb, the crossbar of a telegraph pole, a fence post, or some distended branch—such a point of vantage as a shrike would choose for similar reasons—the beautiful little sparrow hawk eagerly scans the field below for grass-hoppers, mice, hair sparrows, and other small quarry to come within range. The instant its prey is sighted, it launches itself into the air, hovers over its victim, then drops like a stone, seizes it in its talons, and flies back to its perch to feast. It is amusing to watch it handle a grasshopper, very much as a squirrel might eat a nut if he had but two ‘legs. Or, becoming dissatisfied with its hunting grounds, it will fly off over the fields gracefully, swiftly, now pausing on quivering wings to reconnoitre, now on again, past the thickets on the outskirts of woods, through the orchard and about the farm, suddenly arresting flight to pounce on its tiny prey. Its flight is not protracted nor soaring. Never so hurried, so swift, or so fierce as other small hawks, it is none the less active, and its charming hovering posture gives its flight a special grace. Kill-eehill-ee-kill-ee it shrilly calls as it flies above the grass. Every farmer’s boy knows the voice of the killy hawk. Less shy of men than others of its tribe, showing the familiarity of a robin toward us, and it is certainly more social than most hawks, for one frequently sees several little hunters on the same acre, especially around the bird roosts in the spring and autumn migrations. The sparrow hawk would be a universal favorite were it not for its rascality in devouring little birds. So long as there is a grass-hopper or a meadow mouse to eat, it will let feathered prey alone; but these failing, it is a past master in dropping like a thunderbolt upon the tree sparrows, juncos, thrushes, and other small birds found on the ground in thickets and the borders of woods. But it does not eat the farmer’s broilers : the little sharp-shinned and the Cooper’s hawk attend to them. However, the average farmer, who confounds the sins of the former with the far slighter offences of the sparrow hawk, shoots the bird that destroys more enemies to his prosperity than he could guess. Of the three hundred and twenty stomachs of the sparrow hawk examined by Mr. Fisher for the Department of Agriculture, two hundred and fifteen contained grasshoppers or other large insects, eighty-nine contained mice, and not one contained poultry.

Unlike other birds of prey, the sparrow hawk builds no nest, but lays in the hollows of trees, crevices of rocks, or even about outbuildings on a farm ; but a deserted woodpecker’s hole is its ideal home. Although this bird arrives from the south in March, it does not nest until May, when from three to seven cream or fawn-colored eggs, finely and evenly marked with reddish brown, are carefully tended by both the mates that remain lovers for life.