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The Sparrowhawk PR Problem

Ben DolphinLast week, as I was sat at home, I heard a loud but unfamiliar squawk outside followed by alarm calls from smaller birds. When I looked out the window I saw a starling on the ground, motionless under the tight grip of yellow talons. It was a sparrowhawk, the first I’d seen at home in two years… and I was ecstatic!

They’re actually one of our more common birds of prey but for most of us they remain elusive on account of their stealthy hunting strategy. They are fast and manoeuvrable but, like a cheetah, their chase can’t be sustained and they have to rely upon surprise, appearing from nowhere like a puff of smoke and often disappearing just as quickly.

Commence plucking!

‘Sparrow Hawk’ is however something of a misnomer, especially in my case as there are no sparrows where I stay. Sparrowhawks are known to prey on at least 120 species of bird but their preference is dictated by what’s on the local menu, usually opting for the most abundant species. That’s pigeons and starlings where I am, and indeed that’s all I’ve seen the local sparrowhawks taking.

Some might find it distasteful but I do get excited when I hear the distinctive sound of a pigeon wing flapping on the floor of the barn behind the house because, unlike some birds of prey, once it has made its kill the sparrowhawk stays put and gives you time to sit and marvel at its beautiful markings, its piercing eyes and its wonderfully yellow legs. But not everyone is so happy to see them.

The little old lady

There is a stereotype that persists out there, of a sweet little old lady who puts seeds and nuts out for her cute wee birds, who sits at her living room window on a sunny afternoon and delights in watching her feathered visitors and then………BAM! In a cloud of feathers a cute wee bird is impaled on merciless talons. Said little old lady gets terribly upset. She doesn’t want sparrowhawks in her garden, and I can understand why not.

Garden birds are the nearest you can get to having a pet without actually having a pet. You invest time, money and effort in feeding, observing and caring for them, so it’s not surprising that it provokes an emotional response when they’re taken from you by a sparrowhawk with rather graphic dining table manners.

Unlike some predators, who skulk off with their prey or who cache it for later, sparrowhawks pin their prey to the ground where it was struck, and then pluck and devour it in full view and in glorious technicolor. It’s gory I’ll admit, but do we invest similar emotion into the life chances of grubs and slugs that many a wee bird likes to mercilessly peck to death? Or to the surprisingly elastic earthworms that blackbirds seem to delight in stretching to breaking point as they pull them from the ground?

I’ve never met the little old lady stereotype and I don’t know anyone else who has, so I decided to conduct one of my famously unscientific Walkhighlands surveys to see how widely her view is shared.

Survey results

I asked people on Twitter and Facebook whether sparrowhawks were welcome in their gardens. On Twitter 330 people responded and an overwhelming 94% of them said Yes. On Facebook I had 117 responses, with a similarly resounding 99% saying Yes, and many clearly relished the encounters:

“Beautiful to see sitting on the fence”

“Fascinating to watch”

“I was lucky enough to have a sparrowhawk whistle straight past my head to make a kill……The thrill of feeling its wing brush past my face and the speed of the attack took my breath away”

“Highlight of the day”

On the lookout

That’s not to say that the Yes people didn’t have divided loyalties though:

“It does sometimes feel like you’ve laid out of smorgasbord of wee birds that the sparrowhawk can pick off”

“Yes, but very reluctantly as they prey on my little garden birdies”

“As long as they are not eating the long tailed tits”

But despite some emotional misgivings, there was a clear endorsement of how the natural world works:

“Yes. I figure that in feeding small birds I’m feeding birds of prey too – they are all better off”

“Yes. All part of the ecosystem and the food chain”

All very encouraging, I thought, but given that prior to the poll I‘d committed to writing a piece on the negative perception of sparrowhawks it did take the wind out of my sails somewhat when it wasn’t borne out by people’s responses. Did I still have an article to write? I decided I did, because a view undoubtedly holds sway that sparrowhawks in particular are responsible for a broader demise of our garden songbirds. Indeed the two comments of a No persuasion both had concerns about that very issue:

“No – the rise in the number of hawks has had a terrible effect on our small bird population”

“Would love to say welcome but we have many finches that visit”

It’s a logical conclusion to draw and I certainly don’t blame people for making it, but in some corners of the media you will see deliberate demonisation of our native predators that verges on hysteria, as this dire headline from a right-leaning rag proclaimed not so long ago:

“Do-gooders obsessed with increasing population of ‘avian predators’ are letting killer birds terrorise our countryside and attack our pets”

Fast, manoeuvrable and elusive.

Oh those pesky do-gooders! Trying to reverse hundreds of years of persecution during which sparrowhawks were exterminated for taking game birds! Ugh, and what an imposition that they should call for an end to the use of DDT pesticides in agriculture because the toxins that were consumed by invertebrates, which were then consumed by birds, and which were then consumed by sparrowhawks, led to cumulative poisoning so severe that the shells of sparrowhawk eggs became too thin to survive in the nest. Curse those do-gooders! How dare they try to undo human folly and bring a species back from the edge of extinction!!

Rise and fall

But what of the accusation that resurgent birds of prey are terrorising the countryside? I’m not an ecologist and I make no claims to be an expert on either songbirds or ‘avian predators’, so all I can do is delve online in search of studies that show a meaningful negative correlation between raptor recovery and songbird decline and defer to their better judgement, i.e. studies that show songbird numbers declining where raptor numbers are increasing.

I struggled to find any because every respected scientific study examining the relationship, including one based on 43 years of data acquired by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), comes out with the same conclusion – there is no statistically significant evidence to show that bird of prey recovery is driving widespread songbird decline.

I say ‘widespread’ because despite 22 of the 29 prey species studied showing no statistically significant change either way, it’s surely inevitable that there would be local exceptions once sparrowhawks recolonised their former range. And indeed three species (bullfinches, tree sparrows and reed buntings) did register a negative correlation with the sparrowhawk. But the study went on to say that one of those species had since stabilised, and that the other declines couldn’t be attributed to predation alone without further investigation.

There’s certainly no getting away from the fact that sparrowhawks do take a huge number of birds. It’s estimated Britain’s 40,000 pairs take around 50 million birds every year. But while that sounds a lot, it is also the case that successful predators do not render their prey species extinct.

A red kite. Another raptor back from the brink.

One study found a reduction in the peak post-breeding populations of great tits in one woodland, but the numbers of breeding great tits the following year was unchanged, which means that the sparrowhawks were taking ‘surplus’ youngsters that wouldn’t have survived through to the following breeding season anyway. That of course is the very reason that clutch sizes of songbirds are so high in the first place – blackbirds can have as many as four broods per year, and great tits can have between seven and nine eggs in each brood. Attrition by predators (along with disease and the weather) is already factored in, rearing as many young as possible to maximise their chances. Even if just one or two chicks make it through to the next breeding season, the wider population still remains stable.

Conversely, the BTO’s Garden Birdwatch Survey found sparrowhawks had a bad winter in 2016/17. Not because it was cold, quite the opposite in fact, but rather because it was thought that some of their prey – blue tits and great tits – had poor nesting survival rates in the summer due to the wet weather. When there is less prey around, and competition for what little there is increases, there are fewer predators as a result. That is the very nature of predator-prey relationships.

And so I have to admit, I still do find it odd when people rush to blame a native predator, one that has coexisted and evolved alongside its prey for thousands of years, for the demise of its prey. If the balance has been upset, it won’t be because of something the wildlife has done. As one person put it:

“Small birds have not gone extinct to birds of prey yet. Birds of prey have been wiped out by humans. Big clue there!!”

But then, perhaps that’s exactly what a do-gooder obsessed with increasing the population of ‘avian predators’ and letting killer birds terrorise our countryside and attack our pets, would be expected to say?

And while we’re on the subject of pets, consider too that Britain’s 8 million domestic moggies kill an estimated 55 million garden birds every year. That’s 10% more than sparrowhawks are thought to take, so if we’re going to start advocating the culling of predators to protect songbirds then arguably cats, as an introduced, non-native species that humans self-indulgently opt to keep around their homes for their own pleasure and satisfaction, should be at the front of the queue for population control rather than a native species that has been here since after the ice melted, has coexisted in balance with our other wildlife for millennia and has an essential role to play in regulating the ecosystems it inhabits?

Our farm cat, waiting for nesting blue tits to emerge from inside a bat box.

Ach, don’t worry, I’m not advocating a cat cull! I’m being deliberately provocative to illustrate how selective we can be with who, or what, we blame. The RSPB maintains there is no scientific evidence to show cats are the main reason for the decline in any bird species, but I know people who passionately believe otherwise. That’s not to say that songbirds aren’t under pressure, or that there aren’t things we can do to improve their outlook. Some people in the poll, who welcomed sparrowhawks to their gardens, never the less did want to give their prey a sporting chance.

“We’ve just had to rearrange the bird feeder area to make it harder for her to use it as a fly-through buffet.”

Nowt wrong with that. Indeed feeders should be sited in trees or as close to cover as possible, as that’s what the birds are predisposed to using in order to evade predators. In terms of my own personal decisions where my own garden is concerned, I made a choice not to have a cat. I grew up with cats and I’ve got cat tat all over the house. I’m a defiant cat person through and through, but when I was close to adopting one of four abandoned kittens we found at work a couple of years ago, I realised (reluctantly) that I valued the animal encounters in my garden too much to have their behaviour changed by the presence of a cat, or to have them scared off or killed by one. It wasn’t worth it.

Ultimately we should bear in mind that all kinds of factors influence songbird population and survival, not least climate change and habitat loss & fragmentation, and disease. Take greenfinches. They were once daily visitors to my feeders but I haven’t seen one for six or seven years now. Were they all eaten by local sparrowhawks? Or did greenfinches decline by 59% in the ten years up to 2017 due to the infectious and deadly trichomonosis parasite?

The sparrowhawk (and indeed most other carnivores you care to mention) undoubtedly has a PR problem, and I wonder whether it is symptomatic of a wider disconnection from the natural world? Maybe that’s to be expected from a country that exterminated many of its native predators and was first to industrialise and urbanise. Our countryside has become denuded, tamed and sanitised, and nature has either been pushed to the fringes or goes unseen as we scurry past. In so doing it has become increasingly remote and unfamiliar to us, so perhaps it’s little wonder we are so taken aback when the rude realities of the natural world slap us hard across the face. As one person in my poll said:

“Nature is red in tooth and claw, and we have to accept that”

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