January 23rd   2 comments

Sparrowhawk feathers – all neatly plucked and only a few bones remaining..

There’s been a murder. I was in the boggy birch wood at Kilrenny Common yesterday looking down at a pile of feathers, all neatly plucked, lying on the moss. A classic sparrowhawk kill – but this time it’s the sparrowhawk that has been killed. I looked more closely, definitely all sparrowhawk and all large feathers, so a female sparrowhawk. Stranger still. If it was a male (they are two thirds the size of a female – think of a jackdaw and a carrion crow) then I would expect that the much larger female sparrowhawk to be the killer. Generally female sparrowhawks don’t eat males, but it does happen, although I have not found one in the hundreds of sparrowhawk kills I used to find when I was studying their hunting behaviour. So what plucks all of a bird’s feathers like a sparrowhawk and is large enough to kill a female sparrowhawk? Not a merlin or kestrel on the last criteria – and they don’t pluck so extensively and neatly. Not a peregrine either. They are impatient pluckers, ripping out big swathes of feathers, and they usually leave the outer wing feathers still attached to a grisly angel skeleton. The scene of the crime is not very peregrine modus operandi. Peregrines like a more open or high perch to feed from and this plucking occurred on a low stump and on the ground, concealed by the sparse canopy. Peregrines do catch and eat sparrowhawks – again I have never found a sparrowhawk killed by a peregrine but I have seen several very serious hunts of sparrowhawks by peregrines where the hawks escaped only by suicidal dives into dense wooded cover. And individual birds like individual people sometimes behave oddly – perhaps this is a male peregrine feeding in cover to avoid the attention of crows that can – with some effort and in a pair working together – steal a peregrine’s prey So I can’t completely rule out a peregrine as a suspect. But really I think I know the culprit, although it’s a leap of faith and hope. I think this sparrowhawk met its bigger, badder cousin, a goshawk. Imagine a sparrowhawk on steroids – a female is as big as a buzzard, with huge, long clawed legs, and with the speed and agility of a much smaller bird. Goshawks eat other birds of prey routinely – well, they eat anything actually. But their ability to reduce numbers of sparrowhawks and owls in an area is legendary.

There have been a few sightings of goshawks this winter in the East Neuk and they don’t breed too far away from Crail. And I think we now have one here. This is really exciting because goshawks are one of our missing top predators, like wolves. Absent because we removed them, leaving “lesser” predators like sparrowhawks and crows to have the stage to themselves, to hunt with impunity. If you visit bits of Holland or Germany where goshawks are common you hardly see a magpie and definitely not a sparrowhawk. They are there, but cowering in dense cover like the smaller birds they themselves hunt. A sparrowhawk that comes out to terrorise an Amsterdam bird table is likely to end up on the menu. You can imagine that this suits blue tits and sparrows – too small to really be bothered with by a goshawk – so they can come out of cover under its protective umbrella. The same principle is behind the logic of reintroducing wolves to Scotland to reforest – trees escape the attention of deer as the deer hide away from the wolves. If we are seeing the return of goshawks to the area then we can expect some big changes ahead. And a very exciting bird of prey to watch. That said, they are often very secretive. Sticking to the trees and perching silently and invisibly for much of the time before launching a ferocious surprise attack. But watch out for them: a buzzard sized, beefy sparrowhawk, with a very intense stare.

The foot of the sparrowhawk left as one of the remains. A terrible foot if you are a blue tit. But a wimpy foot compared to a goshawk.

Posted January 23, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

2 responses to “January 23rd

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  1. I love your website..it keeps me in touch with Crail when I am away….and makes me realise how much I love being on the beach at Balcomie

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