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Inconspicuous, Secretive, Widespread… Collared Sparrowhawks

By Dan Hutton on April 12, 2012 in

Photo: David Webb

I was fortunate to see a Collared Sparrowhawk on a wild and windy afternoon at Malabar back in autumn last year, swinging out from cover in a wide arc low over the heath near the car park at the water treatment plant, taking full advantage of the stiff breeze. Collared Sparrowhawks are found in most Australian cities where they nest unnoticed in shelter belts or small groups of trees, and hunt native and introduced birds in parks and gardens. They are considered uncommon in Sydney and more likely to be seen in the Blue Mountains and Illawarra. There is some evidence of movement of immature birds from February into winter following breeding, and sparrowhawks have been recorded at Olympic Park, and probably visit Centennial Park too. They may even breed there in suitable patches of trees – it’s definitely worth a look and a listen between September and December when they nest and are easier to locate.

Collared Sparrowhawks are fast, fierce little hawks with wide-eyed staring facial expressions. They are usually inconspicuous and quiet but call frequently when nesting. They have short rounded wings and long narrow tails. Females are much bigger than males – as big as Red Wattlebirds – whereas males are not much bigger than miners. They are very similar to Brown Goshawks, the females of which are also much bigger than males. In Sydney, female goshawks are bigger than magpies, whereas males are similar in size to female sparrowhawks. Sparrowhawks are generally more finely built than the sturdy Brown Goshawks. Nevertheless, there is a real problem separating female sparrowhawks from male goshawks in the field, particularly as they are both rapid and agile in flight when hunting. Both species occasionally soar, when goshawks clearly have rounded tails compared to the square-ended tails of sparrowhawks.

Mature Collared Sparrowhawks are secretive and probably sedentary. Immature birds disperse when they become independent of their parents. They utilise most terrestrial habitats with trees and are widespread throughout Australia in open forests, riverside vegetation, farmland, woodland remnants, gardens and parklands.

Collared Sparrowhawks eat mostly birds taken by stealth and surprise from perches, or in the air after a chase. Females take larger prey such as rosellas and pigeons. Males prefer small birds such as honeyeaters, thornbills and pardalotes.

Range of distribution of Collared Sparrowhawks has changed significantly over the last 30 years or so and they are reported more frequently now. Land clearing appears to have reduced numbers locally, and an increase in Brown Goshawks may have exacerbated the situation. Persistent persecution and pesticide poisoning have also had deleterious effects in the past. However, Collared Sparrowhawks appear to have generally adapted well to white settlement and urbanisation and now successfully exploit populations of introduced starlings, sparrows, blackbirds and feral pigeons as food sources in the suburbs.