Hawk in the Rain

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Hawk in the Rain

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...the hawk
Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,
Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.
While banging wind kills these stubborn hedges.

A short exert from Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Hawk in the Rain’, but care to guess which species he was describing? Well you wont be helped by the fact Ted describes a hawk – its actually a falcon. Ted was clearly a better poet than he was a taxonomist!

The bird he was describing was one of our most familiar birds of prey, the kestrel.  And this is another bird of prey in real trouble. 

May of you will have seen the classic film Kes where a young boy raises a kestrel chick as an escape from his apparently grim up bringing. Now I could comment on the fact that taking a kestrel chick from a nest is illegal and could have landed young Billy in jail, but I think that would be rather missing the point of what is a great story of hope and man’s connection with nature.

Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)

Kestrels have always been that way. A symbol of freedom and escape as they hang effortlessly in the air, and they will be familiar to just about all of as a common sight over our motorways and roadside verges. It's one of the few birds that my kids can identify.  But it seems that they aren’t quite as familiar as they used to be. The latest Breeding Bird Survey data shows a significant decline of 28% in the UK since 1995, with an even steeper decline of 58% in Scotland. It looks like something is up for Kes.

For many birds of prey, like the hen harrier, we know only too well what problems they face, but for the kestrel its a bit of a mystery. We really don’t know what’s causing these declines and until we find that out, it's difficult to do anything to reverse the declines. So this year we’re starting a new research project to look at possible causes of kestrel decline to give us a better idea of what we need to do.

It just goes to show, birds of prey are always going to be vulnerable. Even the ones we think of as common can suddenly start to disappear if we turn our back momentarily. I was interested, and concerned, to see that our kestrel’s American cousin is also apparently crashing, down 47% in the last 45 years. Again, there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer to that most basic question, why?

Hopefully the research we’re starting this year will give us the answers we need to begin to reverse the kestrel’s decline.

When it comes to Defra's research budget, this seems as good a subject as any to invest some spare cash.

We’re still fortunate to be able to see kestrels fairly regularly, but perhaps just that bit less regularly than a few years ago. Kestrels are certainly not yet on the brink, but conservation is as much about preventing species getting to the brink as it is saving those on the edge. Kestrels, as a bird of prey, will always be vulnerable and we cannot afford to take our eye off the ball (as I told my boy last night on the tennis courts). After all, it would be a modern tragedy if the kestrel’s story had the same tear jerking ending as in Kes.

Let’s find out what we need to, to keep this symbol of hope a common sight in our skies!

Have you noticed fewer kestrels on your travels? What do you think could be causing the declines?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Strangely we have more Kestrels than we have ever had in this area,would be a very rare day we did not see one,almost every day we see at least one from the garden.

  • Martin, I agree with redkite (I am not certain about the competition aspect though). Kestrel numbers are falling yet the variety of places that it feeds haven't really changed so the presumption is probably that its food source has declined and that is a difficult one to assess.

    I think the main point that does come of this for me is how that research is done.  You use the words 'we're starting' and I presume this means RSPB.  Citizen science is not always liked by true scientists but the various BTO and RSPB surveys do show that it works. Having spent a number of mornings and nights recently on the Nightingale survey it is also clear that single species research can, in part, be achieved by using this method.  I think the point I am getting to is that no longer should the question of 'why' be addressed by this organisation or another but by using the skills from a number of bodies together. To be fair the BTO is very good at getting such research organised. I know from experience that you do all work together but it isn't always obvious to the birdwatcher on the ground.

  • Interestingly enough i had the same thought just the other day, the Kestrel has always been my favourite bird of prey and is something i always record my sightings of, and with me working in Liverpool and living North of Manchester by default i do a double transect along the M62 every day! I haven't worked here that long but i have a complete record set from jan 2011 to date, and on plotting those records just 5 mins ago (recorded using GPS tagged voice recordings) i can get a pretty accurate picture of where they've been (Google Earth overlay, isn't technology wonderful?).

    Almost without exception the sightings have been by habitats that consist of a rough grassland/tree cover and interestingly have not been spotted (albeit by me..) along areas of almost sole agriculture, in a year+ you think there'd have been something?

    Maybe the answer is at least in part (these things are never simple!) to do with the loss of mosaic habitats or tree cover/rough pasture limiting suitable nesting/hunting opportunities and increasing competition.

    kml and records available on request!

  • I briefly mentioned as an aside in my blog a couple of weeks ago about how I see much less Kestrels than when I was a kid 20-25 years ago. I haven't looked into it, but I always assumed it was something to do with changes in habitat use. From my experience, their place on the outskirts of towns seems to be adopted by Sparrowhawks these days, and alongside motorways, I've seen less hovering Kestrels and more Buzzards either circling or sitting on posts. Whether this is because the Kestrels are being usurped, or because the Buzzards and Sparrowhawks are filling the gaps left by declining Kestrels I wouldn't like to say.