VIEWS & COMMENTS
May I give some personal observations that support some of the articles in your excellent newsletters. I have lived in open country on the edge of woodlands in the Chilterns for over 20 years and have tried to make our acre of garden bird-friendly by siting song-bird feeding stations near hedges and other flight obstacles. Sparrowhawks are the most prolific predators of songbirds here, reducing the number of Thrushes, Blackbirds, Pied (Great Spotted) Woodpeckers and most small songbirds. Sparrowhawks can no longer be controlled by gamekeepers and incidentally have also cleaned out our dovecote of some 30 doves down to zero. Lapwings used to be annual breeders on neighbouring farmland but now visit in small numbers in spring but raise no chicks. Very large numbers of Red Kites and some Buzzards are I believe responsible. Magpies visit but are not a serious scourge because Larsen Traps keep their numbers down. Corvids of other sorts are increasing. Swallows and particularly Swifts have decreased in numbers due to loss of habitat.
The outlook for stable songbird survival is not good.
Tim Elworthy, Henley on Thames.
Picture - Swift
Dear Sir or Madam,
My mother and I have been feeding an array of birds in our garden for around 2 years. I’m not meaning to paint a utopian-picture but, for the birds, it was a state of tranquility and of safety.
However a juvenile Sparrowhawk, within the last month, seems to have ‘moved in’. I understand online sentiments of “Sparrowhawks needing to feed too” but it is most upsetting when our beloved birds get caught. I categorically reject the claim that “Sparrowhawks are not responsible for the decline in birds’ numbers” or that it’ll only take “old or sick birds”. As you will read further down, the Sparrowhawk has destroyed our bird numbers - young and old.
We once had 30 Sparrows, 8 Coal Tits, 5 Great Tits, 3 Goldfinch, 4 Blackbirds and 2 hen birds, 2 Robins and 4 Long-tailed Tits. Unfortunately, within the space of this month, we now have the following: 11 Sparrows, 2 Coal Tits, 1 Great Tit, 2 Blackbirds and a hen bird. My neighbours and I have caught the evidence of the birds’ killer on camera - it was/is the Sparrowhawk. It seems to be visiting every day. The birds live in absolute terror of the “garden assassin”; often they refuse to leave our hedge.
We have changed tactics to make a Sparrowhawk less successful, which includes placing the feeder in a hedge surrounded by bamboo sticks. Yet, the Sparrowhawk seems to have adapted and learns to take the birds in mid-flight! Something we were unaware of. It is so upsetting seeing the Sparrows and other birds literally sitting in the hedge all day.
I was wondering whether I could receive any advice on how to deter a Sparrowhawk. Granted, it is a magnificent bird but has no predator of significance, hence the dramatic rise in its number. It is not difficult to comprehend that a predator that lacks a significant predator will prove detrimental to other animal numbers.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Tomos Povey MA, Monmouth
Picture - Sparrowhawk deterrent devices by Tomos Povey
At long last someone is sticking their necks above the parapet to say what we in the countryside have known for many years. The grey squirrel needs wiping out and not only for the survival of our own red.
I have to explain to bunny huggers all the time that greys will eat anything, they are omnivores and not just vegetarians. Some still do not get it.
I have a new ten acre wood which I planted 16yrs ago and is now a haven for wildlife and more importantly small birds. When I first planted the poplars, there was obviously no holes in the new trees, so I made and hung fifteen bird boxes of various types around the new wood. That year ten of the fifteen had the fronts chewed out by greys and the eggs and young birds eaten. I replaced them and tried again with the same results. I then declared war and purchased seven live catch cages which I modified to take a peanut feeder in the back corner. That was two and a half years ago and I have just sent out invitations for the 71st grey to come and join his friends.
The result has been astounding. I am feeding 25kg of peanuts every three weeks and it is a joy to see an explosion of birds from these feeders, when you approach.
A further success is with great spotted woodpeckers. We have heard youngsters peeping in a hole in a mature ash tree for a number of years but none fledged. In the last two years we have had a four and a three hatching and fledging of woodpeckers and what a joy to have them flitting down the ride in front of you from tree to tree.
They also like the peanut feeders.
I have one pair of magpies and that is enough. Like all predators they need controlling but they are part of our landscape. I also now have a pair of buzzards and as well as keeping the rabbits down they also benefit from an occasional plump squirrel
I am also a shooting man but support your comments about rogue gamekeepers. All of those I have known over the years have been the opposite and have enjoyed the diversity in our woodlands and fields and preservers of our countryside. I have also been a police officer and know full well the effect of a ‘bad apple’.
Neville H Walker, Atherstone
Picture - Great Spotted Woodpecker
Response To Mr Walker
Thank you so much for the supportive e-mail. I was impressed by your inspiring tale of success – well done with the nest box and feeder uptake. One thing though, Great Spotted Woodpeckers can also be significant predators of hole-nesting birds and their young. I always advise people to use either ‘woodcrete’ nest boxes (see here - http://www.livingwithbirds.com/popular-nest-boxes/the-official-woodcrete-nest-box/ ), or to buy those with reinforced fronts so that squirrels and woodpeckers find it harder to chew or bash their way into occupied nests.
Picture - Great Tit on woodcrete nestbox from Birds & Bees
Just an update on our enormous success this year in an explosion of small birds, some of which we have never seen here before. I sat one afternoon this week in a hide and there were so many blue tits and great tits it was impossible to even guess how many. The camera did record a few shots where the cages were getting very busy. One joy is seeing so many young robins, I had five feeding on a ride at the same time yesterday.
This is all a result of our now three year campaign to keep a zero tolerance on grey squirrels and jays and magpies. We have now had 87 squirrels and keep getting the odd one. The seven catchers have worked extremely well and of course the birds benefit as well, to the tune of 25kg of nuts every three weeks. Treecreepers, nuthatches, coal tits are just three of new arrivals.
Chaffinch numbers have also gone up, but the real joy is seeing a host of baby blue tits hovering and bombing the cages like a hive of bees.
This is all achieved in ten acres. Just think what a success it could be if the government brought back a value on squirrel tails. Landowners, game keepers and other outdoors men and women must be rewarded by results, not with hand outs without success. How about a £1 a tail to start with?
Of course as you can see from the photos we get other visitors too
Neville H Walker, Atherstone
Pictures - Left: Badger with cage, Right: Visitors to the cage both by Mr Walker
Ideas to deter sparrowhawks?
Email enquiry to SBS:
I just want you to know that in 3 weeks at least 3 blackbirds have been taken from my garden by sparrowhawk/s. It is said that these birds are ‘needed’ to keep the population of blue-tits down - but they are obviously not going for the blue-tits. I’m getting to the point of considering giving up feeding the birds after approx 45 years of doing so.
I am sorry to hear you are having trouble with sparrowhawks in your garden. If it is taking blackbirds it is probably a female – male sparrowhawks rarely grow large enough to be able to handle prey as big as a blackbird. Females will take pigeon sized prey as well. Sparrowhawks are needed to keep a healthy balance of biodiversity but in some areas their population numbers and need for food outweigh the availability of prey species available. They are not limited to taking blue tits and research has shown they are possibly the main reason for sparrow decline over recent decades. You could move your bird feeders to near trees, bushes and shrubs so that the small birds have more of a chance to get away from the sparrowhawk when it is hunting. This will help the birds escape from other predators as well (cats, magpies etc.) Also; if you watch where the sparrowhawk ‘stoops’ through your garden there is probably one particular flight path it follows each time. You could add an extra tree or garden ornament in its way – thus making it take a fraction of a second longer to get to the bird table and this allows the small birds a bit more time to get away also. Good luck deterring the success of the sparrowhawk in your garden and we hope you continue to enjoy seeing the small birds as well.
My feeders are already near trees, but I have a ground feeder with a cage over (from the RSPB) to ‘protect’ the smaller birds, and from the feathers it is likely that the sparrow-hawk landed on this and caught the blackbird as it made its ‘escape’. I have moved this under the rotary clothes line and I live in hope that they will get used to its new position soon. My heart breaks when blackbirds are lost - the media and suchlike blame cats - but I have seen the neighbour’s cat with one blackbird and sparrow hawks with a total of five. I have a pair of song thrushes and I fear for their survival. Also my neighbour told me that last year she was filling the niger seed feeder every other day for goldfinches - this year it’s only been once a week. I haven’t seen the gold crests for 2 years.
Later that day:
Hello again - I lost another blackbird - this time a hen. That’s one a week for 4 weeks (that I know of) to a sparrowhawk, despite taking several measures to deter the predator. I despair. I have been feeding birds for so many years and have never known this before.
I have joined after picking up a leaflet whilst on holiday in London from Wester-Ross in Scotland. We have a good environment for
birds here but still have a problem with cats.
Domestic cats are also an issue with their hybridisation with the Scottish Wild Cat. I volunteer at Beinn Eighe National Park and we have contacts at Cairngorm Park who suggest the numbers are down to only 40 (not 400 as reported.)
I would like to see more research on predation/effect of domestic cats in the environment and am delighted to join an organisation that may address this taboo subject.
M Ramsay, Wester-Ross
SongBird Survival is a charity commissioning research into the decline of Britain’s songbirds. With your support and membership we hope to reverse their decline.
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