Of the Cape Peninsula

Identification

Black Sparrowhawks

Black Sparrowhawks are medium sized raptors about 55 – 60 cm in length weighing up to 1 kilogram. They are tree nesters and secretive by nature.

Morphs

The birds’ backs and most of their heads are always black, but their throats, chests and bellies can be almost entirely white or almost entirely black.  The black variety can have white throats and/or white flecks on their breasts and bellies. In the white form their waistcoats can join in the middle. These two different forms of colouring are officially referred to as black and white “morphs”, respectively.

On the Cape Peninsula the black morph (picture on the right) is more numerous than the white morph (picture on the left). In the highlands of Africa the white morphs are more common than the black morphs.

Sexual Dimorphism

Hawks show the biggest reverse size sexual dimorphism of all the raptors. This means that the males are considerably smaller than the females. The Black Sparrowhawk males usually have a mass of about 570 grams whereas the females can have a mass of about 1000 grams.

The picture above shows a male chick, with a mass of 550 g, on the left and a female chick, with a mass of 785 g, on the right. The male chick is slightly more developed than the female but even so the female is much bigger than her brother.

Juveniles

For the first year of their lives the young birds sport juvenile plumage. They are usually red fronted with black streaks, but the plumage can be pale or even mole brown with black streaks. In the picture on the right the soon-to-fledge bird has a full crop so his baby fluff is being pushed out from under his feathers. This shows as a white patch on his upper chest.


Age and eye colour

One of the few ways of judging the age of a Black Sparrowhawk is the colour of the eye. In a juvenile the eye appears yellow (top left).  By the end of the first year when it is becoming and adult, it is an orange brown (top right) which then slowly progresses into a dark red colour (bottom left to right).


Wing Shape

As mentioned in the introduction, Black Sparrowhawks are forest birds. To cope with flying amongst the trees they have relatively short, rounded wings and long tails. Compare the picture of a buzzard in flight (top) to that of a Black Sparrowhawk (bottom). Buzzards spend most of their time in open habitats and don’t need to be able to negotiate tight flight paths.


Legs and Toes

If you look at the pictures of the Black Sparrowhawk and the Buzzard above you should be able to see the difference between the lengths of the legs and toes of the two birds.

They hunt different animals and so their hunting equipment needs to be different.

Buzzards hunt mice, lizards, snakes and insects while the Black Sparrowhawks hunt birds. To be effective hunters Black Sparrowhawks need very long toes and talons because this is the only equipment they have for killing their prey. Birds have larger circumferences than equivalent sized mice, lizards etc.

There are other adaptations for hunting birds: Peregrine Falcons have a killing notch in their beaks for breaking the necks of their prey but hawks do not have this.


Prey


Black Sparrowhawks hunt birds and their prey of choice is doves and pigeons but females can take birds up to the size of Guinea Fowl.

Picture of Guinea Fowl on the right by Heather Howell.

33 responses

  1. Jennie Hill

    Hi, I live in Durbanville and have had the privilege of having a few different raptors visit my garden on a regular basis – a family of gymnogene are regulars but I have also had 2 different black sparrowhawks as well – the one I saw yesterday seemed to have an injured leg, is there any way I can confirm the identity of these birds?
    Thanks – Jennie Hill

    July 13, 2012 at 9:04 am

    • Ann

      Hi Jenni,
      You are welcome to give me a ring at 072 357 0909.
      Cheers,
      Ann

      July 13, 2012 at 9:18 am

  2. We had what has been identified as a juv, moulting Black Sparrowhawk in our Norfolk Pine tree in Edgemead yesterday.

    July 23, 2012 at 6:39 pm

  3. Penny Murdock

    Hi I live on the lower slopes of Oranjezicht. This morning, through the window, a whiteish streak caught my eye, about 6 ft above the ground. I went to have a look and there was (I think) a Black Sparrowhawk standing in my garden with it’s talons encircling the body of a pigeon it has just brought down. (The streak I saw) I watched as it stood on it and intermittantly rolled it back and forth. then it began plucking out the feathers and piercing the body (after it had gone I checked the bricks where it had been standing and there was a spray of blood and a pool). It appeared to be eating flesh or drinking blood. After about 5 mins or so, it dragged the prey about a foot away, then stood for about 30sec. Then it flew off, carrying this carcass in its talons. I took some photos on my iphone and movies, but not so easy to see as the distance was probably about 8 meters from where I was at a window.

    October 2, 2012 at 8:33 am

    • Ann

      Hi Penny, sounds like a typical Black Sparrowhawk kill to me. If it had a white chest it is probably one of the birds from a park in The Gardens. Those are not ringed but are the only white morphs in the area. Cheers, Ann

      November 13, 2012 at 5:40 am

  4. Hi my name is Rene and we have had one visiting our garden over the last month. We live in Noordhoek area and I have managed to take quite a couple of photos. Truly a beauty!

    April 11, 2013 at 6:19 am

    • Ann

      Hi Rene,
      That is good to hear. Are there any colour rings on the legs? If you can get colour combinations you will be helping the project greatly. I am always keen to see pictures so if you would like to send some, please do. Cheers,
      Ann

      April 11, 2013 at 6:42 am

  5. One of these birds has been sitting in the Pin oak in our yard. It disappeared over the wall and a few minutes later I saw it flying over with a little bird in its talons. They seem to come though quite often. Perhaps it is the same one. I just hear the doves scattering. I love that you call them ‘charismatic’ – we have a few different raptors passing through (including a Gymnogene) but these seem to have an air about them. We have quite a forested garden. Stephen in Bizweni Somerset West

    August 18, 2013 at 3:45 pm

  6. Beverley

    I found an injured juvenile black sparrowhawk on my patio this afternoon. I think it probably flew into our sliding glass window. I rushed it to the vet but unfortunately it died just as I got there. The vet identified it as a juvenile black sparrowhawk. I live next to the Bellville golf course.

    October 1, 2013 at 7:42 pm

  7. on this past days,i’ saw a black sparrowhawk over our yard, after a couple of minutes i’ jackal buzzard was soaring around our yard,but i’ knew buzzards don’t normally kill,are carrions. i’ never thought that a hawk could take down a large bird bigger than its size, the black sparrow hawk is a supper hunter, i’ saw it.it can even run after its prey under thick bushes,grass, we don’t like this bird around us

    October 28, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    • Ann

      Hi Justin,

      Buzzards do hunt, in fact if they had to wait for carrion they would probably starve. They eat small birds, rodents, lizards, snakes and insects.

      Black Sparrowhawks are flesh eaters and like many other creatures they have to hunt to live. There was a project for a number of years looking at breeding passerines on the West Coast of the Cape Peninsula and they had cameras videoing to see which animals were raiding the nests. Mostly it was shrikes, snakes, mongooses and Crows. That is the way that nature works and they are best left to get on with it undisturbed.

      Mankind and weather are the main destructive forces on planet earth.

      Cheers,
      Ann

      November 6, 2013 at 7:08 am

  8. Hi there

    We had a Black SparrowHawk visit our garden this morning (Castleman rd. Fish Hoek Mountainside). Woke up to find it eating a pigeon / dove in the back yard. His legs were ringed – his left leg had a single silver colored ring, while his right leg had two rings – a green ring (closest to his foot) and a turquoise ring above the green ring). He sat eating for about 15 – 20 min before something disturbed him and he flew up into a tall tree next door with his prey clutched in his left talons.

    Beautiful bird he/she must have been about 45-50cm tall. I took a bunch of photos and have posted some on my Facebook page.

    Cheers
    Rick

    November 9, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    • Ann

      Hi Rick,

      Wonderful pictures! This is a male Black Sparrowhawk that was ringed as a chick on Dassenberg, just off Ou Kaapseweg on the 14/06/2011.

      Thank you so much for sending this on it is really important for my databases to know where these birds are being seen.

      Cheers,
      Ann

      November 10, 2013 at 3:23 pm

  9. Barbara Wellbeloved

    Hi Ann,

    Our Bergvliet trees in the Catholic Church have all gone, and I have only seen our birds a few times, late last year. Do you know where they might have relocated?

    Barbara Wellbeloved.

    February 12, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    • Ann

      Hi Barbara,

      I will have to wait until the birds start breeding again to find them. They are silent outside of the breeding season and not very active, which makes them hard to find. I will let you know when I find them.

      Cheers,
      Ann

      February 13, 2014 at 5:44 am

  10. Catherine Hishin

    Hi Ann,

    We have a male and female black sparrow hawk visiting in Arthur Wright Road on Fish Hoek mountainside which is just one street down from Castleman. It took us a while to identify them, until we realised we were seeing two birds. Unfortunately can’t tell you if they have any rings.

    Cheers
    Catherine

    May 6, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    • Ann

      Hi Catherine,

      That is a very interesting sighting. I think the birds may be from a small holding about a kilometre from where you live. Do look out for rings so we can tell who the birds are.

      Many thanks,
      Ann

      May 6, 2014 at 2:03 pm

  11. Jean de Jager

    On 4 occasions over the past 3 weeks I have seen a pair of what i think are peregrine falcons in Bergvliet. The first time, there was only one, and it was eating what appeared to be a squirrel. On every occasion i have heard them before seeing them, and every time they have been perched atop one of the floodlights on Bergvliet High’s sports field. On a second occasion, one had caught a bird and was devouring it. The two have distinctly different calls. In flight they appear extremely streamlined and disappear from view in an instant. I have just seen them now again on the floodlight but both have flown off separately but in the same direction.

    Would love to hear from others who may have seen these birds.

    Jean
    26 June 2014, 9:30 am

    June 25, 2014 at 7:33 am

  12. Dave Woolley

    We had a female Black Sparrowhawk visit us in our garden in Plumstead on Wednesday. Perched in the same spot for about 3 hours.
    Blue & mauve rings on left leg. Have a nice pic of her – where can I post?

    September 26, 2014 at 8:09 am

  13. Jean de Jager

    Hi Ann. There is a group of sparrowhawks on Meadowridge Common. They have been there since late November 2014. I have been away for 3 weeks and have seen at least 3 in the tall pine trees bordering Edison Drive since my return a week ago. A juvenile is noisy and visible!
    The crows worry them a lot. i am sure they have nest there.

    Jean
    13 Jan 2015

    January 13, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    • Ann

      Hi Jean,

      This is a very important sighting. Could you give me a ring on 072 357 0909.

      January 14, 2015 at 9:33 am

  14. Bas Kothuis

    Hi Ann, I just saw a black sparrowhawk circling over Oranjezicht. We are quite far away from forest on this side of the mountain, but could it be a black sparrowhawk? In 2010 we had an African Goshawk in a tree opposite our house.
    Bas

    March 2, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    • Ann

      Hi Bas,

      The City Bowl has three pairs of Black Sparrowhawks with nests, and they can hunt at least 12 km from their nests. So it is more than possible that you have seen one over your house in Oranjezicht.When you start looking for them you will be very surprised at how many raptors live in the area.

      Ann

      March 18, 2015 at 5:17 am

  15. I have just heard the same cry I heard this time last year – the sparrow hawks are back in the park at the end of Martius Way, Constantia. last year they had two babies and we watched the juveniles every day come out onto the branch next to their huge untidy nest. `Then they flew away. Now they are back! Do they use the same nest? Are these the original parents or is it the juveniles who have come back i wonder? Next time I go for a walk I will take my binocs and try to actually see them So far I have only head them . Ginny
    Apri30, 2015

    April 30, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    • Ann

      Hi Ginny,

      They do return to the same nest most of the time. I only found that nest late last year when the juveniles had already fledged. I am quite concerned about the female who has quite bad head mites.

      Thanks,
      Ann

      April 30, 2015 at 2:32 pm

  16. Please tell me how you got close enough to see head mites! Have you got really super binoculars? Hope I can actually spot one of them next time,its such a thrill to see them looking down from the gum tree. Ginny

    April 30, 2015 at 2:35 pm

  17. Kat

    Hi there
    I just had two large hens taken from my garden a month apart. The one hen was 3kgs the other 2kgs. I heard nothing and saw nothing but have been told sparrow Hawks take guineafowl. There is no evidence of a struggle or feathers. Do you think it’s possible? I have to think of a way of securing my remaining birds if it’s a hawk.
    I live in Noordhoek.
    Advise would be greatly appreciated!
    Kat

    July 22, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    • Ann

      Hi Kat,
      Your chickens haven’t been taken by a Black Sparrowhawk. A female Black Sparrowhawk has a mass of 900 – 1000 g and considering the size of your chickens, there is no way that one could have carried off a chicken, so that it seemed to just vanish. You would at least find some feathers. The hawk usually start plucking immediately when they have take a bird that size I would suggest caracal might be you main suspect.
      To protect your chickens against hawks it is a good idea to keep them under shade cloth and just let them out when people or your dogs are around.
      Good luck,
      Ann

      July 22, 2016 at 4:45 pm

  18. Kat

    Hi there
    Thanks for your reply! Yes that was my thought too that I would’ve seen chicken feathers and signs of a struggle. I didn’t see any sign of caravan unless it could jump my fence but it is possible I suppose. Are there any other bkrds of prey that could be the culprit ? A sparrow hawk was seen by my neighbour this past weekend taking out a pigeon and suggested that could be the culprit. But I agree. .. too big!
    Kat

    July 22, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    • Ann

      The only raptor I can think of that could take a chicken that large would be a Verreaux’s (Black) Eagle. But even then I am sure there would be feather evidence.

      July 22, 2016 at 5:48 pm

  19. Kat

    Thx for your help… The mystery continues!
    I will have to build a large enclosure for my remaining birds.
    Kat

    July 22, 2016 at 6:01 pm

  20. Alwyn Bester.

    We have a breeding pair with a large nest in a tree in Edgemead.

    May 7, 2017 at 3:35 am

    • Ann

      That is nice to hear. Are either of the pair wearing coloured rings?

      May 17, 2017 at 4:56 am

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