The killer in your garden

PUBLISHED: 12:36 17 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:53 20 February 2013

The killer in your garden

The killer in your garden

Beware the killer lurking behind the washing on your line, says Rhian Davies, RSPB volunteer

Death in the clouds

Beware the killer lurking behind the washing on your line, says Rhian Davies, RSPB volunteer

There was a murder in the garden last week. The predator appeared from nowhere and struck with the precision of a serial killer. With the victim in its grasp, it took off with a sweeping glare of yellow eyes around the garden.

The garden was quiet, as if nothing had happened. If there had been witnesses, they had fled or accepted the event as a lethal, but common occurrence. The cold killer was a sparrowhawk, its victim, a blackbird.
When foraging or hunting is made more difficult by wintry weather conditions, the typically peaceful atmosphere of parks and gardens can become a lucrative killing ground. As a result, many garden owners are witness to sparrowhawk attacks. The sparrowhawks that enter gardens tend to be females, who are bolder than males. They are also bigger than males and capable of killing prey as large as woodpigeons. This size difference even makes male sparrowhawks legitimate prey for hungry females.

A sparrowhawk attack can appear a short, sharp event, but it is normally the product of many hours of planning. Sparrowhawks are patient hunters and will sit in hedgerows or bushes waiting for potential prey to venture within striking distance. As they wait, they study the smaller birds behaviour, learning the places where they may linger.

Hunting can be dangerous for the hunter, as well as the hunted. Sparrowhawks can become so absorbed, that obstacles such as garden fences, can come out of nowhere, leaving them dazed and still hungry. With a top speed of 50kph, it is important for sparrowhawks to reduce the risk of collision, so they regularly check flight paths around their hunting grounds.

Sparrowhawks have adapted to hunt in urban environments. A common tactic is to hide behind obstacles, taking unsuspecting birds on the other side by surprise. Hedges are used for cover, but cars (both parked and moving) or washing on the line, are suitable substitutes. By startling birds, a sparrowhawk can start the equivalent of a stampede, causing birds to fly into windows, allowing the hunter to pick off stunned individuals. Death is normally caused by the strong grip from a sparrowhawks talons. If this fails, they have been known to finish the job by dunking their prey into ponds or puddles.

Although their behaviour appears ruthless and can be distressing to watch, the sparrowhawk, like its victim, is simply engaged in its daily battle to survive. Predators such as sparrowhawks can only survive when there is an abundance of prey, so having sparrowhawks in your garden is a good indicator that small bird populations are thriving.


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