Websailor's Wacky Wildlife World

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A quirky look at wildlife. To be taken with a pinch of
salt, but with more than a grain of truth!

The Beady-Eyed Hypnotist

Guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of any small birds, and take the breath away from human observers, the sparrow-hawk is the most aristocratic predator to visit our gardens. Seen on a perch, its upright stance has an arrogance that is unmistakable.

Its high-speed 'heat seeking missile' flight has to be seen to be believed. The first indication to an observer that something is happening, is the sudden disappearance of every bird, and a deathly, still silence. Even the squirrels 'freeze' if they can't reach cover in time.

The ambush is sudden, fast, and over in seconds, if the sparrow hawk is successful. A small bird, such as a sparrow, or even a bullfinch, will be snatched from a feeder/table and taken away to be eaten on a favourite 'plucking post' - a fence post or tree stump. A larger catch, such as a wood pigeon or collared dove will be grounded, often on a garden lawn, while feathers are plucked off and the prey partly eaten to make it light enough to carry. Like an aeroplane, if the load is too heavy, it cannot take off.

The male is much smaller than the female and can only cope with the smaller birds, while the larger female will take a pigeon without much trouble, which is perhaps why the squirrels are so wary! I have no intention of describing the colouring of the birds, which varies according to age, and, it seems, from book to book. A check on the 'Net' should bring up a few dozen photos and descriptions from which you can make up your own mind!

Often in our garden we have watched in awe as the sparrow hawk has missed its target and landed on the lawn, the fence, or the wall. It is a stunning sight as its huge, wild, golden/amber eyes focus on some poor petrified small bird which has managed to find cover in the cotoneaster. We find that it is usually the female that lands in our garden, the male doing a rapid 'fly through', often without a catch.

I have been the subject of those eyes, as it watched me through the window, petrified as the birds, as I waited to see what it would do. She has been known to sit quietly on the fence for ten minutes, focussed on some poor unfortunate, trapped in the lilac bush. Whichever way the small bird goes - the sparrow hawk will be there, so it sits there, safe in the very twiggy branches that don't allow the predator access, but 'quaking in its boots'!

Those eyes hypnotise, I swear, and she has stood on the lawn almost under the cotoneaster, another thick bush, looking for a way in to the poor quivering dunnock hiding there. Her visits sometimes go unobserved, but the evidence of her success can sometimes be found in a ring of feathers on the lawn where she has stripped her bounty before flying off.

At this time of year, early spring in the UK, both birds can be seen hunting. Once eggs are laid, usually when songbird fledglings start to appear, the female sits on the eggs and the male is tasked with finding enough food to sustain her. Trying to feed both himself and his 'wife', who is almost twice his size, probably accounts for the desperation with which he hunts, often almost crashing into obstacles as he tries to find food. This is even more obvious when he has to feed both mate and chicks! They can produce as many a five or six young who stay in the nest for just five to six weeks, by which time poor Mr. Spawk is exhausted. This may account in part for the fact that the male does not have such a long life as the female.

In the 1960s, when the use of organochlorine pesticides was at its height, both sparrow hawk, kestrel and other raptors' numbers dropped drastically, but thankfully their numbers are rising. There are still occasional cases of deliberate poisoning by gamekeepers etc., but the drop in pesticide use has allowed numbers of these and other predators to rise.

There is no evidence that song bird numbers decline with the increase in such predators, in fact, all such predators only survive if there is a good supply of prey. Unlike humans, they do not gorge themselves if there is a glut of prey, and only eat to live. The taking of 'our' garden birds is often greeted with horror and dismay by those who feed and encourage birds in their garden.

Whilst admitting to sadness when a sparrow hawk takes one of our precious 'Red List' bullfinches in particular, it is difficult not to have respect for this hypnotic, golden-eyed predator, even when she nearly scalped me on one trip as she flew between the houses in to the garden!

Watching wildlife in action is a privilege, and it should be accepted that even the unpleasant bits are part and parcel of this wonderful world of ours which is once again about to 'blossom' in all its glory for our delight. The 1960s showed us that we interfere at our peril, and that Nature is best at controlling the balancing act that keeps this wondrous world in kilter.

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