Providing help for birds... - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Providing help for birds…

A Veterinary Practice correspondent bemoans the decline of the kestrel

WHEN I first moved to where I live
it was a common occurrence to see a
kestrel hovering alongside the road
that runs past my house. Of late that
has not been the case and I don’t
think I’ve seen one around our way
within the last year.

Which is why I wasn’t surprised
when I read the RSPB’s recent
publication, Safeguarding Species, which
lists the kestrel as one of the top 40
priority species in its list of 100 British
birds most in need of help. The kestrel
sits alongside other birds such as the
cuckoo, house sparrow,
yellowhammer and the
much less familiar
hawfinch.

At the same time as
we have personally
noticed a decline in kestrels we have
seen a very real rise in sparrowhawk
numbers around us. Only yesterday the
largest female sparrowhawk I have ever
seen was perched on the picnic table in
our garden – a brooding, chocolate
brown presence that spells death to
many a tiny bird that visits the feeders.

Sudden scattering

We see a sparrowhawk most weeks,
often alerted to its arrival by the sudden
scattering in all directions of the other
birds and then the sudden rush of this
low-flying predator as it swoops through
the garden around the bushes and trees
and frequently hits a fleeing bird in full
view.

Back in the spring I photographed a female sparrowhawk making short work
of a starling next to the hedge along our
drive. And just a week later I saw a male
perched in the top of the same hedge
and watched him for several minutes as
he tried to flush out the sparrows from
their safe haven in the body of the
hedge. He jumped and fluttered his way
along daring them to make a dash to
“safety” which would inevitably have
spelt their doom.

Sparrowhawk numbers have risen
considerably in recent years and kestrel numbers have declined.
Why the different
fortunes for these two
raptors which on initial
examination look not
too dissimilar in terms
of size and lifestyle?

The reason, of course, is
that they are very different types of predator and rely on very different types
of habitat in which to feed.

Surprise attacks

Sparrowhawks feed mainly on small
birds from blue tits up to the size of a
pigeon. They take their prey in the air
and rely on fast, surprise attack,
whistling down hedgerows and along
woodland edges to snap up an unwary
bird as it flees for cover.

Suburban gardens are ideal haunts
for sparrowhawks too – garden fences,
shrubs and bushes mimicking the
hedgerows and coppices of more open
country.

The kestrel, on the other hand, plays
more of a waiting game. Their strategy is to hover over habitat that might
contain their prey, watching and waiting
for something to show itself unaware of
the threat from above.

Whilst they might catch the
occasional bird in flight they rely
primarily on ground-based prey: small
mammals, young flightless chicks such
as those of pheasant or partridge, and a
range of invertebrates like beetles and
earthworms.

Kestrels, then, need areas of rough
grassland such as field margins and
motorway embankments over which to
hunt and one can immediately start to
guess at why their numbers are in
decline.

Harder to find

The intensification of farming both in
terms of grassland management and
crop production means that areas of
rough grassland are becoming harder
and harder to find.

Silage production proceeds at a pace
compared to hay making which means a
shorter window of opportunity to hunt
over fields with drying hay that might
harbour any number of mice and voles.

Fields are ploughed right up to the
hedges and fences for sowing arable
crops, giving kestrels less opportunity to
find suitable hunting grounds. Less area
for hunting equals less prey to catch and
fewer kestrels able to survive.

The answer, as for so many of our
native birds, mammals, invertebrates and
plant life, is to farm more
sympathetically, which means giving
farmers the right signals and incentives to do so.
All is not lost but we must gather momentum in the right direction if
birds like the kestrel are to have a
sustainable future in this green and
pleasant land of ours.

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