Difference between sparrowhawk and common kestrel

Some time ago I did an article on the comparison between a common buzzard and a sparrowhawk. I got a lot of good feedback on that article and along with this a follow-up question from a friend. He is interested in the difference between sparrowhawk and common kestrel.  

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kestrel in flight

TAXONOMY of sparrowhawk and common kestrel

In case you managed to read my last blog entries you may already know that the Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) belongs to the Accipitridae family. The common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) belongs to the Falconidae family. Until recently both families have been grouped in the order of Falconiformes. I believe that some 15 or 20 years ago the order of Accipitriformes has been separated from the order of Falconiformes. Both the sparrowhawk as well as the common kestrel are called raptors. Raptors is a „general term that categorizes several unrelated but similar groups of predatory birds that occupy similar niches in the environment: diurnal birds of prey (active in the daylight hours) including hawks, eagles, kites, falcons, the vultures, and the mostly nocturnal birds of prey, the owls„. 

Difference in size

Let’s first look at the difference in respect of the sizing of the two beautiful birds. You can see in the below chart that both birds are very similar.

The below measurements have been taken from vogelwarte.ch (sparrowhawk, common kestrel)

    Sparrowhawk   Common kestrel
Length   28-38 cm   32-35 cm
Wingspan   58-80 cm   71-80 cm
Weight   100-350 g   190-300 g

Difference in appearance

The two bird species have many differences in respect of appearance but if one is not yet so experienced in bird identification it can be tricky sometimes.

Pattern and shape of a bird in flight

The pattern of the chest and wings is very similar between the two birds. Common kestrels tend to have sharp-edged wings whereas Eurasian sparrowhawks have rather plump and rounder ones. Although both birds are very elegant I do think that kestrels are more elegant than sparrowhawks. A very good indication to tell the difference between sparrowhawk and common kestrel is when they are moving. Kestrels have much faster wing slaps compared to the rather slower ones of sparrowhawks. 

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sparrowhawk

sparrowhawk

kestrel flight

kestrel

sparrow hawk

sparrowhawk

kestrel

kestrel

Appearance

To tell the difference between common kestrel and sparrowhawk may require getting close enough to the bird. Both birds however are extremely shy and their escape distance is quite far. If you however manage to get a closer look at them you see quite some obvious details.

The easiest characteristic most likely is the colors and patterns of the back and outer wing feathers. The common kestrel is reddish-brown with black dots whereas the sparrowhawk is brown with a few white markings.

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sparrowhawk back

sparrowhawk

kestrel on a pole

kestrel

Another image of the common kestrel male shows its beautiful splendor of plumage.

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kestrel perching

kestrel

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Behavior

Common kestrels primarily hunt small rodents or little insects, snails, or worms. They have a special hunting technique called „hovering“. Hovering is a common behavior seen in many bird species whereas the little hummingbirds are likely the most professional hover creatures on the plant. Birds of prey mainly hover while hunting. I believe that in theory this is not true hovering but rather wind hovering. Meaning that the birds don’t remain in the same position because of their fast wing beat but mainly because of thermal reasons. As just said, hovering describes a behavior where the bird remains motionless at the same position. Amongst raptors, kestrels are probably the species that have mastered this technique to its fullest. I assume this is mainly due to its relatively small size and fast wing beat. While hovering, the birds can observe the ground and attack prey instantly.

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kestrel hovering

kestrel

Sparrowhawks on the other hand can be seen chasing little songbirds in flight and they rarely hunt on the ground. Both birds usually are perching when enjoying their meal.

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sparrowhawk

sparrowhawk

kestrel with prey

kestrel

A few last words

I hope with this my friend as well as you will be able to easily tell the difference between sparrowhawk and common kestrel.

Some impressions

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Sparrowhawk

sparrowhawk

kestrel

kestrel

sparrowhak chest

sparrowhawk

sparrowhawk

sparrowhawk

kestrel

kestrel

kestrel

kestrel

kestrel

kestrel

Let me know your thoughts

I hope this article was helpful for you. If there is anything you are looking for, please let me know and I try to find examples to discuss.

Love an protect wildlife

Animals are awesome and need our protection. Please don’t hurt, kill or eat animals.

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