It must have happened quite early in the morning. When I went out about 8.00am to fill up the bird feeders, there was the evidence – a wide pool of grey and white feathers on the lawn. Judging from the few remaining grey flight feathers and the masses of soft white down, the victim was a wood pigeon and the slayer a sparrowhawk, probably with a hungry family to feed. It would almost certainly be the female: almost twice as heavy as her mate, only she could manage such hefty prey. Presumably she’d prepared it on the ground, as it would be too unwieldy to lug to the fence-post or tree branch, usually the preferred plucking site. As I stood thinking about all this, a plaintive mewing called my attention to a neighbour’s rooftop. In silhouette it was difficult to say whether the bird I was looking at was the adult female or a juvenile asking for a meal and, before I could fetch my binoculars, this sparrowhawk had flown off. Birdwatching’s often made up of such frustratingly incomplete encounters!
Originally a bird of the woodlands, the sparrowhawk has been quick to take advantage of our garden feeding stations and has consequently prospered. It’s now our commonest, and certainly most often seen, bird of prey, whether it’s ranging over its territory with that characteristic flight, alternating a series of quick wing beats and long glides, or plunging down into a startled flock of feeding finches.
I’ve received several reports recently of sparrowhawk sightings. A female killed and devoured a wood pigeon in a garden only a few wing-beats away from ours. Friends watched from their flat window in the middle of Ilkley as a male launched itself from the roof above them into a bush below, only to emerge pursued by a ruffled and very angry blackbird. So the hunters don’t always have things their own way – in fact only about one in ten attacks is successful. Depending on your point of view, it may appear thrilling or distressing to see such killers in action, but research shows that by taking out weak or ailing birds they are helping to maintain a strong and healthy population. The song bird population has remained stable though sparrowhawk numbers fluctuated over the past century. And they too have families to feed.
Sparrowhawks generally nest high, often choosing a tall conifer and either adopting an old crows’ nest or building a new one of sticks lined by the female with bark shreds. You can often hear the young calling as they get older and hungrier but you generally can’t see inside. However, I shall always remember one particular nest: it was in a large conifer that grew on a steep wooded ridge so that the nest, although some distance away, was on a level with the footpath along the ridge-top. With binoculars you could look directly into the nest where the female was sitting, and I’ll never forget her beautiful fierce yellow eyes. So, at least I can conclude that my unfortunate wood pigeon went to build a hunter’s agile strength and to fuel a stunningly wild, yellow glare. Not a bad thought.