Last year I wrote about sparrowhawks in one of my articles and had not imagined that I would return to the subject so soon. However a couple of weeks ago I witnessed a sight that I think is worth describing. It happened in the town of Stourport-on-Severn. As I descended a canal bridge on my way to the postbox outside the Co-op an elderly man nudged me and said “you don’t see that often, not in Stourport”. I looked across the road and saw nothing. He then pointed down and on the opposite side of the road, in the lee of the kerb, a sparrowhawk was standing on a town pigeon, tearing bloody strips from it with a powerful curved beak.
What was surprising was that cars and vans were passing within inches of the two birds and along the pavement shoppers walked past totally obliviousto the drama going on at their feet. The hawk took in all these sights as she raised her head to swallow her food, but her large eyes betrayed not a shadow of fear nor any sign of concern. The elderly man had spotted her at the moment she had taken the pigeon out of the sky and wondered if it was the same bird he had seen previously in other parts of the town. I moved on, wondering whether at 11:40am the bird’s meal was a late elevenses or an early lunch.
It is perhaps not surprising that food dropped by humans onto pavements should attract pigeons and that their proliferation should cause predators to follow them there, but the wild acts of beak and claw are not what you expect to see in town on the way to post your letter. Sparrow hawks have long been well adapted to man-made structures, though. After all, they acquired the name hedge hawk by taking advantage of the invention of the hedge in the rural landscape. Now they are dodging round buildings to dive onto their prey in its urban counterpart.
And they are not the only townie birds of prey. In recent years peregrine falcons have taken a liking to cathedral towers and I believe are resident at both Worcester’s Cathedral and in the spire of the Glovers’ Needle. Indeed I think I recall that some orphan Clee Hill peregrines were relocated to Salisbury’s cathedral tower after the cruel actions of racing-pigeon enthusiasts left them in need of a new home. Some cathedrals have even gone as far as livestreaming the nesting activities of their raptor lodgers, using web-cameras hidden high up in their towers.
Perhaps eventually we’ll see red kites back on the city streets. In Tudor times these birds were the refuse collectors of their day, clearing up detritus from the streets of London. Only fairly recently did they retreat to the fastnesses of the Welsh mountains, but how I delight in seeing them now, overflying my orchard, thanks to re-introduction programmes and feeding schemes in the Welsh Marches. They’ve certainly expanded their range eastwards and maybe are now breeding in the valley. I hope so.