By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener There is an unsettling absence in the Wildlife Garden. Usually the air is filled with the bubble of birdsong loud enough to drown out the thrum of the nearby A25: blue tits, robins, blackbirds, thrushes, coal tits, wrens, chaffinches, nuthatches. But, to quote Bjork, It’s Oh So Quiet. Just the occasional ‘chipping’ of the woodpeckers. Bird feeders full of nuts swing uneaten in the breeze. Three-day-old breadcrumbs on the bird table are blown to the ground where they lay untouched. Is that a piece of tumbleweed rolling across the patio?
Where are the ten squabbling blue tits? Why are the hedge sparrows not patrolling the ground? Why are there no fresh snail shells on the thrush’s ‘anvil’? And more worryingly, where is Flash, my friendly robin? My burbling companion who sits on the mower handle and almost on my hand as I garden. Cheekily, he has taken to coming in through the french windows and following me round the house. If I need to go out I escort him gently from the premises. I haven’t seen him for a couple of days. Then, yesterday afternoon as I made cups of tea and saw Flash (at last) on the bird table, the answer came. A streak of grey and brown flashed down from the right hand side. The robin darted to the right. The streak momentarily halted, tail fanned out, before swooping into the air and over a hedge. What I thought for a second was a pigeon was in fact a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)!
I like to believe it made off empty-taloned, and Flash lives to burble to me another day. But its presence explains why the smaller birds are keeping their heads down. There is a wood with high trees just behind the house and a flat plain of shrubby gardens with bird tables below. The perfect place for a raptor to observe, hide and strike. Whether the sparrowhawk is a permanent resident in the woods or just patrolling its much larger range of local farmland copse and wood margins, I’m not sure. Sparrowhawks generally do not migrate, but winter in woodland. My garden birds face a winter of feeding and keeping one eye on the woods. Like the grass snake, having a predator such as the sparrowhawk in the garden is a privilege, a sign of a healthy and complete ecosystem. To quote The Ranger, ‘things eat things’. It’s the way it is. But if a sparrowhawk were to eat cheery Flash, would that raptor sit on my mower handle and chat to me? No, it wouldn’t. I would be privileged, but bereft of a little joy. There’s a lesson for life there somewhere. And Flash will have enjoyed a relatively easy life. According to the Hawk Conservancy Trust, sparrowhawks live fast and die young:
A study of 341 individuals that had died in a small area over a 16 year period, 48% had died through collisions, 11% were shot, 14% haemorrhaged, 9% starved, 4% suffered disease, the remaining 14% unknown cause.
Mixed feelings again: Excitement that such an aerobatic hunter, risking death by collision every time it chases a bird should be in the garden, and a fear of losing some of those charming little songbirds. I don’t know which has the tougher life ” I put out food for both prey and predatorâ€¦ Footnote Today I stepped out into a misty downland morning to be greeted by a gentle burbling sound: Flash lives!