Spioróg, the Sparrowhawk

Spiro watchfulWe’ve been calling it Spiro from the Irish work for sparrowhawk – Spioróg (spuh-rogue). Ours is just one of the many sparrowhawks in West Cork – this is not a bird that is endangered in any way at the moment. They’ve been classed as secure. There was a decline back in the old DDT days, but the population has fully recovered since then.

Spiro head

Look at that raptor face – the hooked beak and the piercing yellow eyes

This is one ferocious hunter; but efficient, not so much. In fact, it catches about one bird for every ten it chases. Exhausting! We have watched it plummet from the sky to land on or beside our bird feeder. We’ve watched it chase birds into the bushes only to emerge battered but empty handed. We’ve never seen it actually catch something, although no doubt that will happen in time. When we suddenly see every bird at the feeder or on the ground disappear, we know the signal has been given and Spiro is around.


Robin among thornsTop: an adult male sparrow keeps watch for Spiro. Bottom: Small birds, like this robin, will take refuge in thorn bushes. Sparrowhawks will go after them but often damage themselves in the process

Sparrowhawks rely on their agility to create the element of surprise. They will fly low on the other side of a hedge and at the last moment swoop up and over it to where birds have gathered on a lawn. Or they will catch them in flight, having used trees to hide in until the bird gets close enough. They can weave through branches like Ninjas, ducking and swooping with supreme manoeuvrability. In the open they flap and glide and never hover – it’s one way of telling them from kestrels.

Spiro looking left

They nest in wooded areas and their eggs hatch in May and June – about the same time the smaller birds hatch too. This means that they rely on a diet of fledglings to feed their young, and of course fledglings are easier to catch than adult birds.

Spiro Oct 2015

This is the smaller, darker, sparrowhawk – we think it’s the male

But it’s the male who goes after the fledglings. The female is larger – almost twice as large – and she hunts bigger birds such as pigeons and even pheasants. Females are paler too, so we think Spiro is a female. But we’ve seen a smaller, darker one too – must be the husband. We’ll call him Spirogín.

Spiro neck swivel

Like owls, sparrowhawks can swivel their heads to look behind them

A backyard feeder, such as we have, provides a source of small birds for sparrowhawks. So here we have unwittingly colluded with Mother Nature to help out Spiro and her family. We console ourselves that the birds of prey are important too and need to eat – but in fact, as I said, we have yet to witness a successful kill.

fledging sparrow

This recently-fledged sparrow is a prime target

Ireland's Birds CoverThe sport of falconry was introduced in Ireland by the Anglo-Normans, who arrived in the 12th century. In his wonderful book Ireland’s Birds: Myths, Legends and Folklore (The Collins Press 2015), Niall Mac Coitir tells us that the

…male sparrowhawk was called the musket and was traditionally the hawk kept by priests. The word musket was later used for a crossbow bolt and later still for the new invention of the handgun. Kestrels were the lowliest of falcons, used only by naves or servants. Nevertheless, they had a use, as they were traditionally kept near dovecotes to scare sparrowhawks away, because they would not bother the doves themselves. It was even said that pigeons would seek out a kestrel for protection if a sparrowhawk was about.

Most of the references from Irish folklore and mythology don’t specify what hawk is being talked about. The word for hawk, seabhac (show-ock, where ‘show’ rhymes with ‘cow’), is used generically. But Mac Coitir looks to the behaviour of the bird for clues to find sparrowhawks in Ireland’s great sagas. For example, in the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) the warrior Cúchulainn warned his rival Fergus to stand aside or he would ‘swoop on you as a hawk swoops on little birds.’ 

Yellow finches

Our ‘little birds’ (green finches) keeping a wary eye open for Spiro

Robert talked about Spiro in his The Wild Side post, but we both thought she deserved a post of her own. Most of the photographs of the sparrowhawks in this post were taken, of necessity, very quickly and through a window, so I’ve had to work on them a bit. However, we were lucky enough to be lying in bed one Sunday morning when Spiro herself came and sat on the low terrace wall outside the bedroom window. She stayed for a while, alternately grooming and watchful.

Spiro Having a Scratch

We felt very privileged to be so close to such a fierce wild female.

Spiro on one foot

15 thoughts

  1. I think this was reposted on fb last night.

    That answers a mystery which has been unfolding to me, slowly and intriguingly in the last few years and more expediently in the last few weeks.

    Have you ever heard them call?
    the sound they make!
    It’s incredible.

    It reaches in deep,
    it causes me to jump up,..
    It straightens one up,
    it gives a surge,
    like, that drive from your ancestors.

    Several times I have recorded this sound on my voice recorder!!
    Waiting, holding the phone up, seeing if he will repeat the call,.. after I hear it first and get my phone out,
    never having seen the creature and not having known what it was.

    I’ve probably noticed the sound over the last 2 summers, and it is always significant to hear, but this summer has been the revelation.

    Like discovering Cornwall and West Cork links in June 2018!

    Only some days ago I was able to physically see the creature, up high, for the 1st time, calling and gliding, and
    initially I thought, this is definitely some sort of eagle.

    When you outlined the difference between the Kestrel and the Sparrow hawk, there I got my answer, the gliding.

    So, there is a sparrow hawk, Spioróg
    about here and he is gliding in an uninhabited corridor in nature, between the farms and dwellings.
    I have some pictures and video, at a distance now and one of him on an electricity pylon in the distance. I can hear him as I write.

    In 2017 a friend of mine sent me this song, I didn’t know why then.

    John Denver
    “The Eagle And The Hawk”

    .. all those who see me,
    and all who believe in me,..


    I am the eagle, I live in high country in rocky cathedrals that reach to the sky.
    I am the hawk, and there’s blood on my feathers.
    But time is still turning, they soon will be dry.
    And all those who see me, and all who believe in me
    share in the freedom I feel when I fly.

    Come dance with the west wind and touch on the mountain tops.
    Sail o’er the canyons and up to the stars.
    And reach for the heavens and hope for the future
    and all that we can be, and not what we are.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We have sparrow hawks too, they return every spring. I feel terrible – fattening my finches, tits, blackbirds and robins up for them every winter but nature is nature! I have seen a kill, it was horrific!!


  3. Excellent photo’s Finola. A really magnificent bird which rarely sits around for long enough to be photographed. Lovely. Thanks for sharing.


  4. She is very handsome in her yellow stockings and stripey vest but that fierce yellow eyes tells the story. What a privilege to have her in the garden, though the little birds might disagree – specially love the greenfinches.


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