Birds of prey in general but sparrowhawks in particular can invoke strong emotion with the general public. It is not uncommon for outraged citizens to write letters to the local press savaging these essential members of the food web for decimating 'their' songbirds. The fact those very same people concrete their drives, manicure their lawns, spray insecticides liberally about their prized begonias, litter the ground with slug pellets, and keep cats is overlooked. It is this illogical scramble to keep things tidy that deprives 'their' songbirds of feeding, nesting and roosting opportunities, but that inconvenient fact seems not to enter into their consciousness. No matter: despite regular tirades by Mr & Mrs Angry, the hawks, ace predators that they are, seem to be doing relatively well. And they couldn't thrive if they created a situation whereby there were insufficient songbirds upon which to prey.
Their very welcome presence in our midst was brought home to me earlier yesterday when walking home from a rare shopping expedition through stinging sleet. There is a short loke I use which gets you off the road for a couple of hundred yards and is lined either side with mature gardens. Half way along here my soggy progress was arrested by a squealing sound emanating from an ivy covered hedge. My first thought was a blackbird struggling (really struggling) to sing, or possibly two birds having some sort of ruckus. My peering into the hedge revealed nothing even though the sound was coming from directly in front of me. Puzzled and not being able to leave without at least some attempt to solve the mystery, I gently tapped the hedge with my boot, this being a well-practiced scientific method I’ve developed to help in these situations. Immediately a female sparrowhawk flushed from the other side of the hedge and perched in an adjacent apple tree eyeing me with indignant frustration: how dare I disturb it at its kill. Shortly it glided away, but I'm sure it returned pretty sharpish once I had resumed my trudge home. But for every successful kill there must be many instances whereby the hawk misses its prey, sometimes no doubt only by the width of an outer primary, but nonetheless the hawk goes hungry.
As an illustration of this point, I'm reasonably certain the bird I encountered yesterday must be the very same one I watched hunting around my own garden a couple of days ago; it's close enough to be situated within the same territory. On that occasion it whipped across my eye line, over the dividing fence and stooped towards another blackbird busying itself with a fallen apple. The flight across the lawn exposed the hawk for a few seconds and the blackbird seeing its nemesis approaching at speed, no doubt thinking the avian equivalent to ‘what the f***’, clucked loudly in alarm and launched itself into the nearest thick bush. Safe for another day. With an almost imperceptible twitch of its wings the hawk changed tack and moved swiftly away to hunt in pastures anew. And this near miss is, I think, the outcome of the majority of such assaults. So as I resumed my limp homeward (I foolishly played football Tuesday and am still suffering the consequences), hunched against the biting north wind, getting splashed by a bloke driving too fast through a puddle and cursing all things white van, I mused over various other encounters I'd witnessed over the years when the assailant was less than successful.
I can recall sitting sipping a refreshing pint in a local pub garden one fine summer’s day when a commotion in a hawthorn made me sit up and take notice. The bush played host to a party of starlings that had become rather animated, changing their pleasant background babbling into voices tinted with alarm. I sauntered over and tellingly, without any of the starlings taking flight, was very shortly peering directly into the piercing bright yellow eyes of a sparrowhawk. We glared at each other for a few seconds before the hawk, dismissing me as nothing other than an encumbrance, recommenced its calculating scrutiny of the starlings. Said starlings had settled down by now and were not at all phased by the close proximity of the predator because they knew they were safe.....as long as they remained were they were (which is why they didn't fly away at my approach). Basically, after its initial fruitless crash into the bush, the hawk was now completely powerless to attack and the birds entered into a kind of standoff, daring each other to blink first. The starlings won, forcng the impotent hawk to eventually admit defeat and slink away. Sparrowhawks are, it seems, quite inept when unable to hunt in synch with their instincts.
As further illustration, I witnessed a more dramatic incident a few years ago at NWT Cley Marshes when a sparrowhawk flipped over a dyke wall and zoomed in on a small group of dunlin. All but one of the waders made their escape leaving that unfortunate member of their kin frozen in fear on the shining ooze. The Sparrowhawk was geared up to catch a bird in flight and now, faced with prospective prey crouching beneath it, seemed quite bemused. It's whirled around in a tight circle but the dunlin failed to flush. I watched amazed as the hawk hovered for a few seconds inches above the small wader, talons dangling, but failing to strike. The balance between risk and reward tipping, it gave up and flew off. After a short while the dunlin picked itself up, fluffed out its feathers and started probing the mud as though nothing had happened. It had escaped death because it was slow to react to the initial attack and unwittingly presented the predator with an unfamiliar situation. Perhaps the hawk was young and inexperienced but the incident was, never the less, very instructive.
When engaged in the hunt with all senses focused, it seems humans can themselves experience very close encounters with birds of prey. Taking the humble sparrowhawk again as an example, my family and I were once staking out a pair of little owls hoping to photograph them as they emerged from their nest site towards dusk. Sitting in the car with the window open, I caught a movement to my right. There arrowing toward me was a sparrowhawk, and when I say arrowing towards me I mean just that; the bird was streaking directly towards my face. Just as I thought it was going to enter the car (what fun that would've been) it braked, arched upwards and landed atop the vehicle. We hardly dared breathe as we listened to it scratch its way across the roof and take up position above the passenger door. A period of frantic whispered ensued:
'What do we do dad?'
What's it doing dad'
'How long is it going to stay there dad?'
'Call yourself a birdwatcher?'
Events were determined by a hapless blackbird (again) that lazily flew across in front of us singing sweet nothings to itself. The innocent melody turned to panicked alarm as the hawk rocketed after it. We watched the pair chase across the farmyard in fascination, part of me willing the blackbird to escape whilst also really wanting to see a real live kill. In the event the blackbird just made it into a bramble patch and the hawk quickly disappeared.
But perhaps the weirdest of all such pursuits I ever saw was when walking along Holme beach one very windy mid-April day. As I was trudging parallel to the shoreline I heard the tinny screech of a dunlin's alarm call. I turned to see said dunlin suspended in midair with a newly arrived hobby a few yards behind, it too frozen in space. Both birds were flapping frenetically into the strong head wind and neither was getting anywhere. Time slows when these things transpire and although the chase (if it can be termed such) seemed to last some time, in reality it couldn't have been more than a few seconds before the dunlin, being the smaller and lighter bird, began to pull away from the falcon. Sensing its hopeless position the hobby gave up the chase tacked into the wind and swept up and over the dunes in the blink of an eye. Once the game is up it is pointless to waste precious energy reserves.
So, birds of prey do not have it all their own way; their hit rate cannot be better than 1 in 5, maybe less than that. It is a very tough existence with the predator needing to be on top form all of the time if it is to survive. It would better those people that write their ill-informed letters to look at nature with more rounded vision I think; to take a little time to watch nature a tad more closely. Then they would understand that it is not a one way street. All life has its place in our fragile ecosystem, all has a value to itself and to each other, all should be appreciated for its own sake and for the skills it possesses. It never ceases to amaze me that we humans seem to regard predators as undesirables and as somehow interfering with our ordered view of the world. Coming from a species that is surely the world’s most vicious, destructive predator that is quite a bewildering standpoint. Perhaps when we look into the unyielding eyes of the hunter we see our own selves reflected. Perhaps we do not like what we see.