December 12, 2017

Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

During the 1940s and ’50s the use of pesticides badly affected Buzzard numbers by reducing their ability to reproduce. The withdrawal of these chemicals in the ’60s along with a significant reduction in illegal killing by gamekeepers, led to a gradual re-population across the country.

These days it’s our most common raptor, the naturalist’s name for a bird of prey, and over here in the West they’re extremely numerous, approaching their maximum breeding density of around one pair every 1.2 miles.

I knew they hunted a variety of prey apart from their usual prey of voles, as I’ve frequently seen them standing around in muddy winter fields, often in small groups, hunting earthworms. You can see by the above photo that a Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) is a much larger proposition than either worms or voles, and although I didn’t expect them to be eating something this big, according to a recent Norwegian study they often target medium sized birds. Indeed this study recorded them feeding 10 Jays (Garrulus glandarius) and even a magpie (Pica pica) to their young!

All of a sudden, the relentless mobbing behaviour, where individuals of a certain species cooperatively attack or harass a predator, made a bit more sense to me. I always particularly wondered why Corvids (crows and their allies), so often on the receiving end of mobbing themselves, bothered to hassle Buzzards. But if they’re a legitimate prey species themselves, I suppose it’s a smart evolutionary strategy.

Mobbing also seems to play an important part in teaching juvenile birds about predatory species, as well as making it impossible for the predator in question to mount any kind of sneak attack. My hens do something similar whenever a Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) tries it’s luck by hiding in the Holly tree in our side garden, hoping a Tit or Finch will hop in for dinner. They all race over and cluster around the base of the tree squawking, clucking and generally making a lot of noise. In the face of all this hysterical racket the Sparrowhawk invariably gives up pretty quickly and if there ever were hen chicks around to witness it, I’m sure they’d get the picture too.

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