In love with a killer
Andrew Fallan shares his expertise in Essex wildlife as well as his views on the conservation and environmental issues that we face
In last month’s Essex Life, I briefly touched upon how millions of years of evolution has moulded certain animals into finely-tuned and lethally efficient predators, hardwiring their brains with the necessary impulses and equipping their bodies with the tools and physical attributes to enable them to stalk, chase, catch and kill other animals. Some of our most iconic wild creatures, both at home and abroad, are predators, from lithe otters, slick common dolphins and soaring golden eagles to sprinting cheetahs, howling wolves and breathtakingly beautiful snow leopards. Other predators, such as roaring lions, lurking crocodiles, marauding great white sharks and even divebombing peregrines, embody a raw, primeval power and wild, savage glamour that we cannot help but be awed by, even if the killing itself is too much for us.
However, there is one species that, with its furious scowl, primed killer instinct, reckless daring and devastating lightningbolt strike, perhaps outdoes them all. What’s more, with a bit of luck, you can witness the jawdropping spectacle and sheer, in-your-face impressiveness of this mesmerising hunter in your own back garden.
Although not seen all that often and usually only fleetingly, with an air of mystery that is rather apt for this smash-and-grab, blinkand-you-miss-it killing machine, the sparrowhawk is one of our most familiar birds of prey.
Unfortunately, it is also one of our most despised and demonised wild creatures, largely because it sometimes preys on our beloved garden birds, even having the audacity to snatch them from the very feeders we put out for them. Some people have also accused sparrowhawks, along with certain other predators, of decimating our songbird populations, even though it very much appears that habitat loss and changes in farming – altogether more vague and less convenient foes – are actually to blame.
I should perhaps stress that, while I admit to having quite a fascination with sparrowhawks, I take absolutely no pleasure in the end result of their predatory endeavours, especially as this is something that I have witnessed first-hand. As an unashamed animal lover and long-time vegetarian, my passion for wildlife does nothing to mitigate my utter revulsion at the cold indifference and pitiless cruelty of nature, to the extent that I hate it almost as much as I do the deliberate ill-treatment of animals by us humans. It is, however, important to remember that, in catching and killing their prey, predators such as sparrowhawks are merely doing that which nature impels them to do in order to survive. Unlike us humans – who, incidentally, are also predators – they have neither a concept of right and
wrong nor the capacity to feel any kind of empathy for their victims, let alone to reflect on their actions and find alternative ways of feeding themselves. We are therefore free to be upset and even horrified by what they do, but we surely have a responsibility to ensure that this does not translate into feelings of enmity towards the predators themselves.
Despite being woodland specialists, with short, blunt wings to aid nimble dashes through narrow gaps in the trees, sparrowhawks can be encountered almost anywhere. You may be lucky enough, as I have been, to look out of your window and be gobsmacked by the sight of a sparrowhawk perched menacingly on the garden fence, especially if it has been attracted by a buffet of small birds – though you might want to look away if it has managed to catch one and is tucking into its prize. Displaying their characteristic flap-flap-glide flight pattern, sparrowhawks can sometimes be seen soaring and circling in the sky, almost like pint-sized buzzards riding the thermals. At other times, these zealous hunters will bomb along at break-neck speed, like small, feathered missiles that have been fired from a rocket launcher, their streamlined bodies propelled by short bursts of manic flapping interspersed with long, surgical glides. With the manoeuvrability of a jet fighter and the resolve of a freedom fighter, their supreme aerial prowess is matched only by their ferocious tenacity and blinkered determination to connect with their target, almost at any cost. Once, while driving on the A127, I saw a sparrowhawk shoot right across both carriageways, flying as fast as a bullet and so low to the ground that it not only risked colliding with oncoming vehicles, but actually went under the central reservation barriers!
As my own testimony amply demonstrates, you can still detest the lethal brutality of nature’s killers, while at the same time feeling a deep sense of awe, wonder and excitement in their presence. In fact, with their striking beauty, bold charisma and the life-and-death drama they momentarily bring to the cossetted banality of our everyday lives, there is absolutely no reason why we can’t all learn to love sparrowhawks.
More Powerful birds of prey, the peregrine falcon (above) and the golden eagle (below)