Teme Valley Musings, August 2021

by Stephanie Mocroft

Like many people, I enjoy seeing birds coming into our garden to collect the food and water we put out for them. We have suspended two feeders in thecherry tree on the grass in front of the house, one for sunflower hearts, the other for peanuts, and put clear plastic domes on top to protect them from crafty squirrels. This method works, but may divert these furry friends elsewhere, as I discovered earlier this week. One of my raised beds had beenneatly decorated with a line of green strawberry “stars”. My husband spotted the brazen culprit, at which I asked “did it have the strawberry in its paws?”, “No, in its mouth” he replied, but I digress.

One of the bird-feeder visitors who is less welcome to some garden-owners is thesparrowhawk. Sometimes I spot one making a swift curving swoop into our cherry tree, scattering the small birds amidst a frenzy of alarm calls. He or she may fly away with a catch, chase it down onto the ground or, just as likely, end up empty-handed with big golden eyes staring out onto the empty scene. Although many people feel betrayed when the creatures they have helped to feed fall victim to a predator, I feel that the ability to support the top bird in afood-chain is indicative of a thriving bird population which is doing well enough to sustain the occasional loss.

Sparrowhawks are woodland birds, the female is the size of a wood pigeon, the male a little larger than a blackbird. Both have horizontal dark bars, the males are reddish, across a white front. Their sole food is other birds, the only British bird of prey to rely on their relatives in this way. They are also given the name “hedge hawk” and anyone who has seen one hunting along the side of a road, darting from side to side just above and below the hedge-top will agree that this is a good name.

I was surprised to see one recently striding across the grass to stand under the cherry tree and look around curiously. I presume it to have been a youngster, as this is not the usual method of approach. Indeed, at first I thought it was a wood pigeon, only its possession of a determined gait leading me to reach for the binoculars. I hope it can hone its hunting skills sooner rather than later.

A further interesting encounter came last winter after a lengthy and utterly torrential period of heavy rain. As the rain stopped, a sparrowhawk landed on a dead branch which arches out across our pond. Wondering if it was going to try its hand at fishing, I realised that it was holding its wings out stiffly behind it and allowing the rain to slide off its feathers. After quite some minutes standing in this odd pose it felt dry enough to take to the air again and up it flew.

My final note is of a story I found, and rather liked, about an invasion of sparrows into Joseph Paxton’s monumental Crystal Palace which he had built for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Queen Victoria was apparently vexed by them and called in the Duke of Wellington to do something about it. No sabres flashing, instead “Sparrowhawks, Ma’am”, he is reported to have advised.