Raptor attention

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?

Bird table and woods

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)!

Sparrowhawk (c) Sergey Yeliseev

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 predator… Footnote Today I stepped out into a misty downland morning to be greeted by a gentle burbling sound: Flash lives!

Flash the robin

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4 thoughts on “Raptor attention

  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Thanks for that observation, David. Our small birds have been noticeably fewer since Saturday. This may mean they are feeding quickly and then hiding, or perhaps they have moved to another garden where they feel safer. This would explain why the robins are still here – they are territorial. I’m sure they’ll all be back when the weather gets colder, sparrowhawk or no sparrowhawk.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    We get the occsaional sparrowhawks to our bird feeder and they go away empty talloned more time than they catch something but they don’t hang around as they rely on the element of surprise. The small birds seem to know this and usually return within a few minutes

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I know you’re not supposed to get attached to wild creatures but I’m very fond of the robins. They genuinely chat away at close proximity, and if I unearth a worm or a grub, that’s their reward. You’ll be pleased to know that Flash and Mrs Flash produced three fledglings this year.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Thanks for your footnote – Flash lives! I know nature is red in tooth and claw but when the birds you feed week in week out are predated it’s difficult not to take sides.

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