We occasionally get queries about birds of prey venturing into gardens often resulting in rather stumped observers who did not expect to see such creatures at such close quarters. Here are just a few quick fire questions and answers that we often encounter about birds of prey in the garden.
What was it? Nine times out of ten the bird of prey responsible is likely to be a sparrowhawk. These relatively small and agile raptors are very distinctive. They are mostly grey on their upper surfaces, sometimes with bold white spots, with pale under sides with darker horizontal barring across the chest. The male of the species is smaller and has a rufous tinge to its chest. Other species that will venture into gardens with some regularity are kestrels, buzzards and in some parts red kites. We have also had a few reports over the years of goshawk, merlin and peregrine from gardens but these are rare occurences.
Why is it in the garden? Most birds of prey are wary of humans and generally avoid us where possible. However the garden habitats of the UK have attracted a variety of woodland and scrub dwelling bird species. In fact, most of the birds that we call garden birds these days are birds that are naturally at home in the woodlands of ancient Britain. As humans have felled these habitats and changed the landscape to what we have now, these birds have adapted along with us and found ways to exploit the spaces around our habitations. The attraction of parks and gardens to the smaller species has not gone undetected by the birds of prey that have always been the natural adversaries and predators of these birds. In modern day Britain it is actually quite normal to see birds of prey in gardens.
Is it dangerous? We often get asked if the bird of prey is likely to pose a threat to pets or children or people. You can rest assurred that if you have a bird of prey like a sparrowhawk or kestrel visiting your garden it won't be a danger to your family or pets. Even larger raptors such as buzzards and red kites won't take anything larger than a rabbit so there are very few situations where there would be any reason to worry.
Won't they eat all of the small birds? We have looked into predation between birds of prey and the species that they prey upon and the simple answer is no they won't. You can read our review of predation here and some facts about predators and prey here but the general conclusion made from the research into sparrowhawk predation on songbirds is that the sparrowhawks do not depress breeding densities of their songbird prey. In a garden situation a sparrowhawk will often scatter the smaller birds, they head for cover when danger is detected and only come out again when the coast is clear. Once danger has passed they usually resume their normal activities but keep a watchful eye to skies just in case the wily raptor tries his luck again. This is unusual as once the element of surprise is lost, the sparrowhawk will move off and try his luck elsewhere. The other birds of prey that venture into gardens such as the buzzards and kestrels are generalists that will take a wide range of prey that includes worms, beetles, small mammals, as well as birds.
Can I or should I deter them? Birds of prey are natural predators of wild birds, they bring a bit of the wilderness into our lives and we should take the opportunity to appreciate their finely tuned senses and adaptibility. They only make one successful kill out of every ten attempts so they have to work very hard for their meals. Once they subdue their prey they waste very little if left undisturbed and a large meal of a pigeon for example will keep them fed for a day or two. Whilst it can be distressing to witness such acts of predation, the raptor is only doing what it needs to do in order to survive, nature is brutal sometimes and we should accept this. Rather than deter them all I would encourage everyone to do is to plant gardens sympathetically for wild birds so that plenty of cover is available to those birds quick enough to find it. Those that are too slow to react or make the worng decision are fair game for the sparrowhawk, the true meaning of survival of the fittest. The strongest and sharpest birds will therefore go on to reproduce leading to healthier populations so the role of the sparrowhawk as an apex predator is a very important one indeed.
How can I encourage them, do they use nest boxes? Whilst kestrels will take to nesting boxes, see the link here, most of the other birds of prey won't use them as they make nests in the tree tops, usually in the canopy of mature woodlands or copses. It is very difficult to attract birds of prey in to a garden on a regular basis, they often cover large distances as they hunt and will rarely concentrate their attention in the same place for long. Keeping a healthy garden for wildlife is a good start as a population of birds of prey in the area can only survive if the food chain beneath it is in good order so have a look at the Homes for Wildlife project and see what you can do.
The media has been full of articles about the drought conditions affecting parts of the UK, hose pipe bans may be enforced and we're being asked to take shorter showers! Now would be a great time to start thinking about how you are going to manage your garden this year with restrictions on water. There are some really useful tips for green living including water conservation here and here.
However, we are trying to encourage people to create gardens for wildlife and some gardens requite lots of watering. If this means that the water is taken away from threatened habitats such as rivers and wetlands to keep thirsty annual bedding plants going, watering could be doing harm. So what to do? How about looking at some different types of garden that require less water such as mediterranean or alpine beds, borders or containers? A mediterranean border can thrive in full sun and be a haven for wildlife, and for people. With the highly scented foliage of herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage it's an assault on the senses that has practical benefits as well as aesthetic and wildlife appeal. Add in some lavender and you not only have a ready supply of fresh herbs for cooking but also an air freshener! Bees and butterflies love the flowers of these plants and they require very little water in comparison to some of the thirsty bedding plants that are popular grown for their colourful summer blooms but lack any attraction to wildlife.
Alpines offer a different level of interest, often low growing and spreading in nature these plants do well in dry and sunny spots and need little attention. You can get a massive variety of these from most garden centres these days and some of the plants are brilliant for attracting bees and butterflies. You are likely to find aubretias, saxifrages, phlox, gentians, sedums and sempervivums, my recommendation would be to go for a mix of them and to look for ones in the garden centre that are being visited by bees or butterflies. A large pot filled with an even mix of grit and soil planted densely with alpines is well worth a go and should be possible even on a tight budget or with limited space.
If we get any rain soon, put out as many pots and pans as you can, so you can then transfer it to your water butt, if you haven't got one then now is the time to get one!
Later this month and into April we'll blog about birds of prey in the garden, hedge cutting and baby birds so watch this space...