Shorter days and cold weather draw buzzards, sparrowhawks and red kites closer to gardens
Garden birders often get upset when a sparrowhawk chooses to ambush ‘their’ small birds. You get attached to regular visitors, so it’s sad to see one becoming a predator’s lunch.
But, of course, everything has to eat, and winter is a difficult time for birds of prey. Low temperatures mean they need to take in more calories, but short days and poor weather limit opportunities to hunt.
It does mean you’re more likely to see a hawk in your garden, or on a country walk. Of the UK’s 10 hawks, kites and eagles, the three that you’re most likely to see in and around where most of us live are buzzards, red kites and, of course, sparrowhawks.
Of the three, the most common is the buzzard, which now breeds in every county. There are thought to be up to 79,000 breeding pairs. Buzzards usually sit out rainy days and do their hunting when the weather’s fine. They soar high above the countryside on wings they flap as rarely as possible. Super-sharp eyesight means they can spot a possible meal. That can be a small animal or bird, or may be roadkill.
By contrast, sparrowhawks are up close and personal. They specialise in ambushing small birds, often approaching from behind some sort of cover, like a hedge. A sparrowhawk that has a blue-grey back and wings is a male, while one with a brown back and wings is a female, or a juvenile. Males are a little smaller and can catch prey up to thrush-size, while the bigger females can tackle anything up to the size of a pigeon. There are around 35,000 UK breeding pairs, but their stealthy habits mean they’re less noticeable than buzzards.
The last member of this trio is far rarer than the other two, but it makes itself very visible – and often flies over towns and cities.
In the mid-20th century the red kite was close to extinction, but has managed to make a remarkable comeback. Now it’s thought there are close to 2,000 breeding pairs, many of them living in middle England. Indeed, garden feeding has taught kites that it’s worth doing a daily ‘country-to-town’ commute for the tasty titbits that are on offer. It’s hard to miss kites when they’re around. Like buzzards, they soar on outstretched wings. But a kite’s wings (175-179cm/69–70in wingspan) look almost too big for its body.
To tell in-flight kites and buzzards apart, look at a bird’s tail. If it’s V-shaped you’re looking at a kite, while a fan-shaped tail means you’re watching a buzzard.
Red kites soar above gardens looking for a meal
Buzzards are more common than others
Sparrowhawks have a ractive blue-grey and pink feathers