SHARP EYED?The sparrowhawk hunts through trees with a mixture of stealth and speed.
Predator, prey and preparations
Country Sights and Sounds
Mid January; first light. The sky is a blue bowl rimmed with grey, as if everywhere were cloudy apart from here. The lake is awash with pieces of reed broken from the far shoreline, all of them driven by last night’s wind. The storm has forgotten its fury and now the water rocks gently.
It feels early, but already the world is full of life. When I stepped from the porch it was to the alarm call of the magpie as she fled from last year’s nest. She isn’t ready to set up home yet, just making an investigation, looking at possibilities. ‘Chak-a-tack, Chak-a-tack!’ She scolds, angry at being disturbed or disappointed at being found out, or both.
A flock of wood pigeons lift from beneath the beech trees with a clatter of wings. How many? I try to count but have to guess; fifty? Forty then, all of them come to feed on the last of the beech mast. They always have a lookout of at least one bird, positioned high up where it can keep an eye out for any kind of danger. They should be used to me. Still they fly as if in a panic.
In the last week we found the remains of three of their number. The first was in the garden, face down on the floor. Apart from being dead he was quite perfect, his slate-grey back immaculate, his white collar pristine. An honest bird with a bright, round eye and a glowing flush of colour about his cheeks, he reminds me of the plump country parson who presided over the dissolution of the small congregation I was forced to attend as a sullen and disinterested youth. (I think the acute dismay he felt at becoming redundant was alleviated by his no longer having to shepherd his flock of aberrant teens.)
But why had the pigeon died in his prime? We examined him closely and found a simple crease across his breast where a score of feathers had been dislodged. That was all. A hawk attack, that was our conclusion, and this was verified a short time later when we found a second kill site close by and another a quarter mile off, this third minus its head and lying on its back with the breast meat stripped from the bones.
We have two pigeon predators in these parts. The first and more common is the sparrowhawk, which hunts through trees with a mixture of stealth and speed and never, at least in my experience, beheads its victims. The second is the mighty peregrine falcon. This bird kills over open country by striking prey at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour and could easily be responsible for mid-air decapitation.
Then again, both these predators will eat the brains or entire head of their prey, as a sort of Hors d’oeuvre, before settling down to the main meat dish. For the time being, we will settle on a sparrowhawk as the killer, for we know these are around and that we can see them whenever we wish, whereas the peregrine is a rare visitor which only drops by two or three times a year. Still, the pigeons are discovered and they do well to keep their lookout on duty.
Further around the bay jays are shrieking through the woods. For years there have been a pair of jays nesting somewhere close by; this year there are two pairs, at least. The least glimmer of extra daylight triggers their courtship behaviour, which must be the most noisy among Irish birds. In another week or two they will fall silent and become thoroughly secretive as nesting time arrives, so much so that we would not know they are here at all. One pair are focusing their activity on a well-overgrown ring fort, where holly and blackthorn create a dense, almost impenetrable thicket – just the sort of place a jay family would feel safe.
A pair of ravens, our largest members of the crow family, inspect the ruins of Moore Hall. One, likely the male, carries a foot-long twig in its bill. The air is filled with repeated calls and they put on quite a show, climbing and banking and dramatically tumbling above those historical walls for a full ten minutes, before retreating over the trees for a more private audience.
Grey drifts over blue, bringing sleet on the wind. These are the longest days.