Sparrows and sparrowhawks

by Pippa Greenwood

I'm an animal lover. I love them all - be they wild, domesticated, farm animals, even pests.

Sparrows feeding from a bird feederI'm an animal lover. I love them all - be they wild, domesticated, farm animals, even pests. My vote always seems to go with those naturally decked in fur or feathers, scales or indeed exoskeletons.

It's not always easy; I try to eat a fair quantity of my crops, rather than let the pests have them, but I always try to do this by using barriers and preventative measures, rather than by being a dealer in death. There are exceptions: houseflies and horseflies top the list of insects that I do try to kill. But I've started to feel some very untoward thoughts about a certain visitor to our garden.

The sparrowhawk is a huge creature, with beautiful regal plumage. But rather like the excessively good-looking human, it has a less attractive side. I know they have to eat, but one particular sparrowhawk has taken to using our garden it as its own five-star restaurant. Just about every day I witness it take at least two of my beloved sparrows, or the blue tits or just about any of the smaller and particularly lovely feathered critters we try to provide a habitat for.

I've heard the argument that it's not that sparrowhawk numbers are on the increase, but that they're simply following their food, so as the smaller birds become more numerous in gardens, the sparrowhawks move in too.

We've moved the bird feeders and stopped using those that seem to leave the small birds exposed to predators. But what's the answer? It looks as if we're going to have to build a sort of Eden Project-esque mini-dome of chicken wire to contain the feeders, enabling the small birds to enter via the mesh holes and feed without the threat of capture. But will the sparrowhawk simply wait nearby and catch them as they leave? Will I still see the sorry sight of a little cloud of tiny feathers in its wake? I don't know how many small birds it takes to fuel a sparrowhawk each day, but even my maths tells me that if you multiply any number by seven it means a lot fewer little birds in just one week.

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Gardeners' World Web User 08/08/2008 at 08:23

I would be bowled over at the sight of a sparrowhawk in the garden!! Was honoured by visits from a kestrel in the past.Now am lucky to see birds at all due to the increase in domestic cats and am concerned that the bird feeders are luring them to an untimely end courtesy of these brutes. The little cloud of tiny feathers to a wild bird is nothing like when a fat, pampered cat is responsible.

Gardeners' World Web User 08/08/2008 at 22:07

I too am missing a pair of blue tits from our garden, Haven't noticed any predators but the sparrow population has multiplied considerably this summer. Have they been forced out like the woodpidgeons were by the crows? The poor things were pressured out of the tree they have nested in for the last two years. Birds mimic humans by ganging up on residents they don't want as neighbours.

Gardeners' World Web User 08/08/2008 at 22:09

We have been visited by sparrowhawks for the past two years and they are mainly going for the collared doves whose numbers dwindled due to the virus that affected finches and were this year slowly increasing in number. So far this week they have had three. The smaller birds I feed from feeders in either a hawthorn hedge or in holly trees which does seem to deter them, but they have been seen sitting on top of the hedge lurking with intent! I know cats can be a problem but they are not as brutish, and they do keep the mouse population down, and mice can do a lot of damage to your plants, and seedlings.

Gardeners' World Web User 09/08/2008 at 12:08

Over the last four years we have been participating in the R.S.P.B house sparrow project, providing mealworms throughout to summer and seed all year has helped the sparrow population greatly, with many into their fourth brood this summer. The knock-on effect of this is that we have also seen an increase in the number of sparrowhawks visiting the neighbourhood. The alarm call goes out and our little flock takes cover. However, the mourning period for sparrows seems to be about two minutes as the feeders are soon busy again. Taking into account the increase of both sparrowhawk and cat predation, our sparrows seem to be doing very well. They also munch through plenty of aphids and other garden pests, which is good news for the veggie plot.

Gardeners' World Web User 09/08/2008 at 16:04

We have been visited several times by sparrowhawks this year. The other day I heard a great squawking of blackbirds which were obviously very alarmed by something and when I looked through the window I saw several adults diving down from the fence into the garden. When I went outside, I found that a sparrowhawk had caught a young blackbird and the adults were mobbing it and trying to rescue the chick. The birds all flew off when I appeared and the young bird scuttled into a flowerbed for safety. It wasn't there the following day, so I hope it survived. I have found several sad little mounds of feathers in the past weeks but although I regret the loss of these little birds, it is still a thrill to see these handsome predators so close.

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