Peregrine falcon (credit Neil Aldridge)
Raptors and owls are the highly-skilled hunters of the avian world, and Wildlife Trust nature reserves can be some of the best places to see them in action. Simon Barnes shares his thoughts on his favourite birds of prey and reminds us of just how special they are.
Birds of prey are special. That is the whole point of them. If they weren’t special they wouldn’t be birds of prey. Their specialness is the very core of their identity. They are not just special for humans: they are special for themselves.
If you want to be fierce, you must also be rare. For a bird of prey, rarity is part of the job. Birds of prey simply couldn’t function without being rare, without being special. For a human there is always a sense of privilege when you set eyes on a bird of prey, but birds of prey were special long before humans first began to walk upright.
The other day, I saw a bird on the roof of my house. It wasn't terribly big, but something about the way it looked – its angularity, a silhouette that simply wasn’t part of everyday life – made me look again. It was a sparrowhawk: a male, being slighter than the female.
After a few moments it moved. It did so with both nonchalance and suddenness: a classic bird-of-prey trick. It rose to the ridge of the house and then flipped with casual mastery and went barrelling over the other side. I don’t supposed it was ever more than six inches from the tiles. Just trying his luck: seeing if he might ambush an unwary bird on the other side.
Sparrowhawks are far more special than blue tits. That’s not an expression of prejudice, it is a fundamental truth about the way life works. Think of a nice bit of woodland. How many leaves do you think it has? Well, quite a lot, in the warmer months. So how many caterpillars does it have?
Lots and lots, though not as many as there are leaves, or the caterpillars would destroy their own place and themselves with it. So how many blue tits are there, foraging for caterpillars out on the furthest edge of the whippiest braches?
A good few. Obviously, there are far more caterpillars than blue tits: if there weren’t the blue tits simply couldn’t make a living. So how many sparrowhawks are there, cruising and ambushing their way through the woods in search of a meal of blue tits for themselves and for their ravenous offspring?
Perhaps just one pair. That's if the wood is big enough and has enough blue tits and other small birds living in it. And perhaps, if the wood isn’t big enough or healthy enough, none at all. Sparrowhawks, being birds of prey, are not only the most special birds that nest in the wood, they are also the most vulnerable.
This is one of the essential paradoxes of the wild world: the fiercer you are, the more vulnerable you are. There are always far more antelopes than there are lions; the same basic rule applies to sparrowhawks and blue tits. When things go wrong with an ecosystem, it’s always the predators that feel first.
There is a corollary to this rule, and it is an important one. When you see a bird of prey, you know that something about the ecosystem is working, and working pretty well. If you see a sparrowhawk in a wood, it is a pretty good indication that the wood has lots of leaves and therefore lots of caterpillars and therefore lots of blue tits. This complex truth can be conveyed in a single thunderbolt glimpse of a pell-mell sparrowhawk.
Birds of prey, then, are something to rejoice in. I have always taken a special pleasure in the hobby, a slim long-winged falcon that comes cruising into Britain for the summer. This is a bird that likes a challenge: its preferred prey species are among the fastest and finest fliers that exist. Hobbies take swallows and swifts out of the air, often looking like giant and terrible swifts themselves.
Killing a swallow! Killing and eating one of our beloved swallows! Surely that shouldn’t be allowed. Many very nice and tender-hearted people find the existence of birds of prey dismaying. And I respect those feelings. I remember when a hobby made one of those sinister raids on my own – or at least that’s how I thought of them – population of swallows last summer.
I saw the swallow twist in the air and evade the death-pass, I saw the other swallows turn on the hobby and fly, not away but towards him, yelling at the tops of their voices, driving him off while I shouted uproarious approval.
Well, I’m entitled to enjoy birds how I wish, am I not? And if I wish to be silly and anthropomorphic, that’s my affair. But when I’m feeling more grown up and less proprietorial, I have nothing but support for all birds of prey. It’s not nice to see a sparrowhawk killing a songbird: but nature is not nice. It is not supposed to be. Nature is often cruel and terrible, as well as magnificent and wonderful and inspiring. Nature itself isn’t special. Nature is merely everything.
A red kite, twisting his tail as he steers with insolent ease across the sky. An osprey returning nestward with an impossibly large fish in his talons. A kestrel hovering over the motorway verge. A marsh harrier – they were once down to a single pair in this country – quartering the reedbeds. A peregrine making the anchor silhouette in the sky as he turns into the fastest living thing on the planet.
They’re special all right.
Simon Barnes writes two weekly wildlife columns for The Times. Image by David Bebber of The Times.
For special spots to see barn owls click here .
Find out how you can follow a sat-tagged osprey here .
For information about where to experience an amazing hen harrier sky dance, click here .
Download The Wildlife Trusts' guide to 40 places to see birds of prey below.