Saturday 21 September 2019

Lay of the Land: Sparrowhawks and the savage spice of life

A sparrowhawk
A sparrowhawk

Fiona O'Connell

The swallows arrived back last Sunday, three of them soaring over the river in this country town within hours of me wondering when they might return. I felt sad that Flying Fauntleroy, the fugitive pigeon, wasn't here to join them, for a sparrowhawk recently devoured him for dinner.

Yet I was starstruck to find one of these magnificent murderers perched in my back yard the other morning. There stood this musket - as males are called - replete with ferocious stare, fine yellow stockings and stripy vest. He was clearly waiting for me to put out bird food so he could literally grab a bite for breakfast.

It's not my first encounter with Ireland's most common bird of prey. But seeing these chilling, yet charismatic creatures up close, is always thrilling, leading me to despair at folk who berate them because they eat little birds. For they do so to survive, and not for sadistic sport.

Like the pigeon fancier I met who cursed the sparrowhawk that finished off Flying Fauntleroy (you can blame the much bigger femme fatale for that) - he complained there are too many sparrowhawks about.

"Why bring them back?" he raged, referring to the fact that they were once almost wiped out by human destructiveness. "Once they are gone, leave it at that!"

He even sympathised with farmers who kill them. Though he conceded that intensive agricultural practices of today harm the environment way more than any sparrowhawk ever could.

For while it may be distressing to see songbirds savaged by sparrowhawks, science proves that they do not have a significant detrimental impact on the small bird population. Far more damaging are domestic cats, which thanks to us occur in much greater numbers than nature can support, wreaking havoc on our native wildlife.

Yet the poisoning of birds of prey goes on.

I will never forget the beautiful but lifeless body of a kestrel that I found in Castlefreke, West Cork, some years ago. To destroy such an incredible creature because they threaten our profits, or hamper our hobbies, is surely a sin against all that is sacred.

Thankfully, not everyone wishes them ill. "There's a breeding pair in the valley at the moment," enthuses a local. "You see them around twilight each evening. It's fantastic that sparrowhawks are back in the area. It's nature at its best."

These particular birds of prey live up to their name, as an anecdote about the aged Duke of Wellington illustrates.

The Duke was summoned by Queen Victoria for advice on how to clear an infestation of hundreds of sparrows from the glass roof of Crystal Palace. All attempts had failed; it was too high for nets and no guns could be used as even the sound of blanks might shatter the glass.

The Duke just drawled: "Sparrahawks, Ma'am."

Sure enough, two of them cleared the sparrows in minutes.

If I didn't know better, I'd find that hard to swallow.

Sunday Independent

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