Kestrel on the hunt!

I’m sorry to have forgotten who sent this clip to me, but the three-minute excerpt from the BBC’s “Life in the Air” series is enthralling. It’s a Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), with some of the most amazing video I’ve seen of bird flight. I have no idea how they filmed it, but suspect the bird was trained. I loved how the bird flew through the gate without missing a beat. (Note that this species is not the same as the American “sparrowhawk”, Falco sparverius, now known as the American kestrel.)

And the kill, from Wikipedia:

Small birds are killed on impact or when squeezed by the Eurasian sparrowhawk’s foot, especially the two long claws. Victims which struggle are “kneaded” by the hawk, using its talons to squeeze and stab. When dealing with large prey species which peck and flap, the hawk’s long legs help. It stands on top of its prey to pluck and pull it apart. The feathers are plucked and usually the breast muscles are eaten first. The bones are left, but can be broken using the notch in the bill.


  1. Posted June 24, 2016 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    You are getting all messed up with common names! A Kestrel (in the US) is sometimes called a “Sparrowhawk”, but it is like a Eurasian Kestrel, a type of falcon. This footage is of the true Sparrowhawk, which is, as you note, an Accipiter. So referring to it as a kestrel is a family level taxonomy fail!

    • John Harshman
      Posted June 24, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      Ha! These days it’s an order level taxonomy fail, as Falconiformes is not closely related to Accipitriformes.

    • Posted June 24, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      This bird is closely related to the New World species (or clade of species) Accipiter striatus, the Sharp-Shinned Hawk.

      • lkr
        Posted June 24, 2016 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        Am I missing something? There’s nothing above conflating the two birds.

        Perhaps the parenthetical explanation has been added. But unless PCC completely rewrote the text, you’re punching away at a straw raptor.

        • Posted June 24, 2016 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

          Either you are missing something or I am. The title of the post is “Kestrel on the hunt,” and according to Sean McCann’s comment, the bird in the video is not a Kestrel. And you say there’s no problem and everyone’s in agreement. I think. Now I’m confusing myself.

          • lkr
            Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:24 am | Permalink

            Sorry — I dove in on the picture, watched the video, then read the text [about 3 times] but not the title. You wouldn’t believe what happened next!

      • Posted June 25, 2016 at 7:37 am | Permalink

        … and to Accipiter cooperii, Cooper’s Hawk. We have one regularly strafing our garden sparrows and doves, and more than once crashing into our windows! (Yes, there are sticky thingies on the glass to assist the birds to stay clear.)

        • John Harshman
          Posted June 25, 2016 at 9:26 am | Permalink

          Oddly enough, Cooper’s hawk isn’t all that closely related either to sparrowhawk or sharpshin. The latter two are actually closer to harriers.

  2. Peter
    Posted June 24, 2016 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    A wonderful BBC three-part series; worth making the effort to see. At the conclusion of each part is an explanation of how many of the sequences came about. There is an explanation with illustrations on the following BBC page on how the Sparrowhawk shot was created:

  3. Peter
    Posted June 24, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    The Sparrowhawk’s name is Zack. His ‘staff’, Lloyd and Rose Buck, have a wonderful website with clips of the birds they have worked with:

  4. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted June 24, 2016 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    I have seen a sparrow hawk exactly once. (At least I think it was a sparvhök due to its diminutive size, since the next accipiter up, duvhöken [Accipiter gentilis] ís medium sized.) And it gave me the show of a lifetime!

    I was tasked to inventory animal life on a small part of a nature reserve that day. (It was under my military service, so don’t ask and I won’t tell why they used cheap, non-educated labor as a token effort.) Having seen nothing new, suddenly a dark streak moves towards a pine besides me. After which a desperately squeeking flight of a talgoxe [Parus major] weaves in and out among the branches, followed by that amazingly controlled streak.

    The resolution was quick and went ill – for the hawk! Perhaps it was a young one. The P. major consistently sought towards ground and then made a quick skewed upturn. Clever bird! Perhaps the sparrow hawk could have managed the turn in free air, but a wing hit the ground, then the body, and that was it.

    The poor thing was so dazed and/or tired, that all it could do was sit back and stare at me a few meters away. It did that for some long moments so I could get a good look, before taking off to try again.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted June 24, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Ah, “sparrowhawk”, even my spellchecker knew that. More resemblance to swedish, then.

    • Posted June 24, 2016 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

      Sometimes those kinds of mistakes can be fatal. I once saw a flicker (a mid-size woodpecker) flying across our college campus from one big tree to another, in its characteristic wavy flight. I suppose it wanted to land on the vertical trunk but it misjudged the approach and smashed into it, broke its neck and fell to the ground dead!

  5. John Harshman
    Posted June 24, 2016 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Bit of my kind of biology:

    The genus Accipiter as traditionally constituted is paraphyletic, as the genus Circus (harriers) is inside it. Since A. nidus is the type species, it’s safe, and so is its relative A. stratus. But either Circus has to disappear or there need to be at least two more genera named to encompass two groups of former Accipiter, including the most common North American species, Cooper’s hawk (A. cooperi).

    • John Harshman
      Posted June 24, 2016 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      A. nisus. Autocorrect again. What does “nidus” even mean? Is it really a word?

      • stephen
        Posted June 24, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        Latin for “nest”.

        • John Harshman
          Posted June 24, 2016 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

          Sure, but “nisus” is Latin for “striven”. And it’s even an English word too.

  6. Neil Faulkner
    Posted June 24, 2016 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Sparrowhawks finally recolonised my home town in the 1990s after the pesticide-induced crash almost half a century earlier, and I now see them regularly. Suburbia is a perfect hunting ground for them, and they routinely use buildings as cover for their attack runs. They do, however, have an unnerving habit of making those low level flights across busy roads.

    I think the most impressive flight I ever saw was of a male that suddenly appeared to my right as I was cycling down a residential street, sped low across the road towards a waist-high garden wall, flipped over the wall back down to near ground level, zipping across the postage-stamp lawn towards the front of the house, then a sharp 90-degree turn to the right to skim the front of the house, promptly followed by an equally sharp turn to the left to disappear round the side of the house. All over in about three seconds. What it must be like to see through their eyes…

  7. Tim Harris
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    A wonderful bit of filming and well-narrated – but which brought to mind a Japanese nature film part of which I saw while in a hospital waiting-room here some years ago. It was about kingfishers and was narrated by a woman narrator who adopted the gentle, calm and slightly high-pitched ‘lovely nature’ voice that is so common in nature documentaries here. This voice ran gently and imperturbably on and on as a kingfisher eyed the water below, as it dived, as it rose from the water with a fish in its beak, as it alighted on a branch, and as it savagely beat the struggling fish to unconsciousness or death on the branch – something that took quite a few seconds, maybe half a minute – and as it finally swallowed its stunned or slaughtered prey. The discrepancy between the gentle flow of the ‘lovely nature’ voice and the bird beating the fish to death nearly reduced me to hysterics.

  8. Mike
    Posted June 27, 2016 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Not only does the Sparrowhawks abilities amaze, so does the Cameramans.

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