Early one morning I opened the curtains and in the branch of a tree in the garden opposite was a collared dove, just sitting, minding its own business and probably making feeding plans for the day ahead. As I opened the window it spread its wings and set off in that clumsy and not especially aerodynamic way that they have of taking to the air and started to gain height. It hadn’t got very far however when suddenly from out of nowhere a second bird collided with it like a guided missile and there was an explosion of grey feathers. I didn’t see it coming and neither did the collared dove but even if it had there was nothing it would have been able to do about it because it was the Sparrowhawk.
The Sparrowhawk as well as being a magnificent bird is a ruthless killer and designed to hunt expertly from the air. It tracks at great speed, darting out of cover with extreme dexterity combined with deadly accuracy to kill its prey. It doesn’t hover, like the Kestrel or the Hawk, but relies on pace, momentum and surprise to catch its food and for this it is well designed with long slim legs, large sharp talons and a very efficient hooked beak that it uses for piercing and tearing up its prey.
The male Sparrowhawk was formerly called a musket, and the gun was named after the bird which perhaps gives a clue as to just how deadly they can be. They are expert hunters and very fast fliers, and often make quick dashes over hedgerows or along the ground when chasing prey, which is often spectacularly captured using a downward plummet from the sky with closed wings. The pairs work well together as a team and to avoid competition between the two sexes, males concentrate on smaller birds, such as sparrows and tits, and females hunt larger birds including collared doves, thrushes and starlings.
After intercepting the unsuspecting bird in flight the Sparrowhawk dropped to the ground and set about preparing breakfast. I had seen the hit but it was all so quick that it was only now that I was beginning to understand what was going on. The killer stood on the doomed bird, who only had a matter of seconds left to wonder what hit it, and opened it wings to form a tent and spread its tail feathers to provide balance.
The wings had wonderful markings, russet brown with dark stripes and she flapped them continuously to prevent any unexpected break for escape but there was no way that this was going to happen and she removed the wings, plucked the breast and removed the face and beak in a matter of seconds and then with the dead bird in its talons it took off and flew away at great speed probably to take it back to its nest somewhere and to feed the nest full of chicks because there is quite a lot of meat on a collared dove.
Each adult Sparrowhawk will kill and consume a couple of small birds a day for themselves and when they are breeding at about this time of the year a pair needs to catch another ten or so just to feed the chicks. According to the RSPB there are forty thousand breeding pairs in the United Kingdom so by my calculation that is twenty thousand nests with an average of three chicks each so to feed themselves and their offspring this means three hundred thousand murders a day. As Thomas Hobbes said in his philosophical treatise, Leviathan, ‘Life (in the state of nature) is nasty, brutish and short”.
I didn’t capture this incident on camera but a few days later the bird was back this time in the back garden and on this occassion picked up a young starling for lunch.
Other posts about birds: