Monday 19 March 2018

Hawks - dive-bombers of the sky

Strike: The sparrowhawk is a fast flier and skilful hunter Photo: Brian Hopper
Strike: The sparrowhawk is a fast flier and skilful hunter Photo: Brian Hopper

Joe Kennedy

A 'Treetops Hotel' at a farmhouse garden in West Cork is almost totally occupied by teenagers clamouring for food.

Their daytime chattering as they harass their overworked parents is unceasing. But, as darkness falls, they simply disappear. To where, nobody is really sure.

These are starlings (sturnus vulgaris), healthy, noisy and constantly in need. Dozens of them have taken up temporary residence in a mature hedge of escalonia, planted as a garden perimeter about 15 years ago. It is more head-high than tree-high and is a usual home to small nesting birds such as finches, tits and wrens. The farm family has concerns for those regulars which have been discommoded by the starling invasion.

These chattering classes have been using the protective hedge as an assembly station. Their family nesting places are not, it appears, in any adjoining farm buildings but at sites across a valley to where, it is assumed they return to roost at night.

Meanwhile, from their daily perches, they view a land of plenty where cows are milked and walk to pasture, exposing wriggling worms with their hooves, while calves are fed from a plentiful supply of grain-nuts. There may be a slight danger from the predations of cats which patrol the cattle accommodation, but otherwise this is paradise for brash extroverts which pay little attention to man except to notice if he might be turning up some food morsels while manoeuvring machinery.

Meanwhile, other permanent residents of eaves and attics of the farmyard, hundreds of sparrow parents and young, continue their busy lives unabashed. And there's not a sparrowhawk in sight to trouble them.

In another part of the country a reader reports being "dive-bombed" by a hawk while he was topping up his garden bird-feeders. He was startled and has considered if he was singled out for aggression. He has a considerable flock for his feeders and wonders if the sparrowhawk was distracted by a glint on his shirt buttons of if he had disturbed a possible prey swoop.

Once, years ago, a sparrowhawk looked in a window at me. It had bungled a pounce on a young woodpigeon and then found itself with a sudden bump on glass and wings spread-eagled at a garden window.

I won't forget its beautiful and extraordinary eyes - yellow, a female - and the look it gave me as if I were at fault for its missed strike! I found some feathers outside but no sign of a victim.

The female hawk is about twice as large as the male. Both are fast fliers and can easily flit among trees and cover, and are skilful hunters along hedgerows, making surprise attacks, moving swiftly to an opposite hedge when necessary.

I recall a story of a motorist on a quiet country road noticing a hawk flying alongside, quite unperturbed, for several minutes before suddenly flipping over the car roof to pounce on unsuspecting prey in the opposite hedgerow. The car was used as hunting cover.

Magpies are a continuing problem. They are on the prowl in newer places seeking food. One reader laments they have "cleared" her garden of "everything", meaning, principally, small birds. She used to cut up apples to leave on a path for blackbirds which arrived daily. Magpies soon discovered a sweet treat. Goodbye blackbirds. Now she has given up putting out food. But the magpies still call by, to search through plants and grass for anything edible.

Sunday Independent

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