The Black Sparrowhawk: A Majestic African Raptor

“The Black Sparrowhawk: A Majestic African Raptor” provides an intriguing look into the characteristics and behaviors of the black sparrowhawk, one of the largest species of Accipiter in sub-Saharan Africa. From their impressive size and black and white plumage to their adaptability in urban environments, these raptors showcase their tenacity and prowess as predators. The article also delves into their nesting habits, diet, hunting strategies, and the challenges they face in relation to human interaction. With their ability to thrive amidst destruction, the black sparrowhawk truly stands out as a fascinating and resilient bird.


Size and plumage

The black sparrowhawk is a large raptor, belonging to the Accipiter species. It is known for its impressive size, with an average length of fifty centimeters and a wingspan of approximately one meter. Females are typically larger than males, which is common among raptors.

Their plumage is distinctive, with black and white pied coloring. They have barred markings on their tails and wings, and their legs are yellow in color. Juveniles have brownish feathers with streaks across their heads, chests, and wings.

Barred markings

One notable characteristic of the black sparrowhawk is its barred markings on its tails and wings. These markings serve as a form of camouflage, allowing the sparrowhawk to blend in with its surroundings and go unnoticed by potential prey.


The black sparrowhawk exhibits two color-morphs, namely the white-morph and the black-morph. The white-morph is more common and has black upperparts with predominantly white plumage on its chest, belly, and legs. On the other hand, the black-morph is primarily found in the coastal regions of South Africa, particularly in the Cape Peninsula. These black-morph birds are nearly entirely black, with some indistinct white spots and markings on the chest. The black-morphs have better resistance to parasites than their white-morph counterparts, which is beneficial during the rainy season when blood parasites are more abundant. Additionally, the darker coloration provides better camouflage in low light conditions, aiding in hunting success.

Distribution & Habitat

Sub-Saharan Africa

The black sparrowhawk is native to sub-Saharan Africa. They are found in various regions, with Accipiter melanoleucus temminckii occurring in the Northwest, and Accipiter melanoleucus melanoleucus ranging from the Northeast towards Southern Africa. These raptors have adapted to different habitats in this region.

Forest habitats

Black sparrowhawks are primarily forest birds and prefer tall trees for nesting. They also inhabit woodlands, riverine areas, and the outskirts of farmlands and vineyards. The presence of dense arboreal habitats is crucial for their survival and breeding success.

Spread to urban areas

In recent years, the range of the black sparrowhawk has expanded to include urban areas. They have become particularly abundant in the Cape Peninsula of South Africa, where they have successfully colonized urban and suburban environments. They have also adapted to non-indigenous plantations, such as pine and eucalyptus, which provide suitable nesting habitats.

Breeding and Nesting

Breeding seasons

The breeding seasons of black sparrowhawks vary depending on the region and subspecies. These raptors are mostly monogamous but may engage in extra-pair mating. Once the nest is built, females tend to take a back seat in hunting duties, leaving the males to provide most of the food for the nestlings. Black sparrowhawks mate regularly throughout the breeding season and continue to mate even after the nestlings have fledged.

Monogamous behavior

While black sparrowhawks exhibit monogamous behavior, they are particular about their nests. They usually return to the same nest each year. Nest building is a joint effort, with both male and female black sparrowhawks contributing to the construction. The nests are typically located towards the edges of forests, high up in the tree canopy.

Nest building

Black sparrowhawks construct large nests made up of sticks and twigs. They use strong-scented leaves like eucalyptus and camphor to line the nests. These aromatic leaves act as natural insect repellents, and the soft leaves provide cushioning for the chicks. Females lay two to four eggs, which are incubated for an average of thirty-six days. Both male and female black sparrowhawks participate in incubation, along with their hunting duties. The pair cares for their offspring until they are approximately three months old. While black sparrowhawks may occasionally breed twice in a season, second broods are rare among raptors.

Black Sparrowhawk Diet

Prey preferences

Sparrowhawks were named for their propensity to prey on sparrows, but the black sparrowhawk favors medium-sized birds such as doves and francolins. In urban habitats, they mainly prey on pigeons. In rural areas, they may also hunt chickens, which can lead to conflicts with humans. Black sparrowhawks have been known to prey on other raptors, including shikras, wood owls, and even other sparrowhawk species. They may also target small mammals and rodents. Females often hunt larger prey than males.

Hunting in urban habitats

Despite being forest birds, black sparrowhawks have adapted their hunting habits to urban environments. They often hunt from concealed perches, launching short bursts to catch their prey in flight. They have also been observed chasing prey on foot, particularly when the bird is spotted from a distance. Their ability to adapt their hunting strategies to different environments has contributed to their success in urban areas.

Hunting Habits

Concealed perch hunting

Black sparrowhawks employ a hunting strategy known as concealed perch hunting. They observe their surroundings from a concealed location and wait for an opportunity to strike out and capture their prey. This strategy allows them to surprise their prey and increase their chances of a successful hunt.

Chasing prey on foot

In certain situations, black sparrowhawks may engage in foot pursuit of their prey. This occurs when the sparrowhawk spots a bird from a distance and decides to give chase on the ground. This hunting behavior can be observed when the prey attempts to escape by running rather than taking flight. Black sparrowhawks are agile runners and can easily navigate through dense vegetation in pursuit of their quarry.

Enemies of the Black Sparrowhawk

Attacks by Egyptian geese

In some regions, such as the Cape Peninsula, black sparrowhawks face attacks by Egyptian geese. These aggressive birds often steal the sparrowhawk’s nests, resulting in the abandonment of the nest and the need for the sparrowhawk to find a new nesting spot. These territorial conflicts can be fierce and may pose challenges to the reproductive success of the black sparrowhawk.

Harassment by crows

Black sparrowhawks are also harassed by crows, which invade their nests and steal eggs, chicks, and food. Crows are known to be highly opportunistic and will take advantage of any available food source. The presence of crows in the nesting areas of black sparrowhawks can pose a significant threat to the survival of their offspring.

Conservation Status

Range expansion into urban areas

One of the remarkable aspects of the black sparrowhawk is its range expansion into urban areas. While urbanization typically has a negative impact on wildlife, the black sparrowhawk has shown incredible adaptability and success in urban habitats. Their ability to thrive in these environments is a testament to their remarkable adaptability.

Adaptability to cultivated forests

Black sparrowhawks have also demonstrated adaptability to cultivated forests, such as non-indigenous plantations of pine and eucalyptus. While these trees may be invasive and have negative impacts on native vegetation, they provide suitable nesting habitats for black sparrowhawks. This adaptability has helped them cope with deforestation and maintain stable populations.

Conflict with humans

The adaptability of black sparrowhawks has not come without challenges. In rural areas, conflicts can arise between black sparrowhawks and humans due to their predation on poultry. This conflict may lead to attempts to control or remove black sparrowhawks in order to protect domestic fowl. Additionally, the preference of black sparrowhawks for nesting in non-indigenous trees may pose challenges in conservation areas where the removal of these trees is necessary to protect native flora and fauna.

Range Expansion into Urban Areas

Threats and challenges

The range expansion of the black sparrowhawk into urban areas presents both threats and challenges. They may face increased competition for resources, habitat loss due to urban development, and exposure to human-induced hazards such as traffic and pollution. Balancing the needs of the black sparrowhawk with urbanization efforts is crucial for ensuring their continued survival in these environments.

Adaptability and success

Despite the challenges they may face in urban areas, black sparrowhawks have demonstrated remarkable adaptability and success. Their ability to utilize urban habitats for nesting and hunting is a testament to their resilience as a species. Observing these raptors thriving amidst urban destruction is a rare joy and highlights the potential for coexistence between wildlife and human-dominated landscapes.

Observing Black Sparrowhawks in Urban Environments

Rare joy amidst urban destruction

The presence of black sparrowhawks in urban environments provides a rare opportunity for nature enthusiasts to observe these magnificent raptors up close. Despite the ongoing destruction of natural habitats and declining populations of many urban wildlife species, the black sparrowhawk serves as a reminder of the resilience and adaptability of nature.

Thriving despite declining populations

While populations of many bird species are declining, black sparrowhawks have managed to thrive in urban environments. Their success can be attributed to their ability to adapt their hunting strategies, their preference for non-indigenous nesting trees, and their resilience in the face of human-induced challenges. Appreciating the interactions between urban environments and wildlife, such as the presence of black sparrowhawks, can help foster a greater understanding and respect for the natural world.


Remarkable adaptability

The black sparrowhawk is a tenacious African raptor that has demonstrated remarkable adaptability in various environments. From their impressive size and distinctive plumage to their ability to colonize urban habitats, black sparrowhawks have carved out a niche for themselves in sub-Saharan Africa. Their range expansion and success in urban areas serve as a testament to their resilience and adaptability as a species.

Appreciating urban-wildlife interactions

Observing black sparrowhawks thriving amidst urban destruction provides a unique opportunity to appreciate the interactions between wildlife and human-dominated landscapes. Despite the challenges they may face, black sparrowhawks serve as a reminder of the beauty and resilience of nature. By fostering a greater understanding and appreciation for these urban-wildlife interactions, we can work towards creating a more harmonious coexistence between humans and the natural world.

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