By Denis O’Connor

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

CROUCHED beneath the hedge five yards from our kitchen window recently was a male sparrowhawk, a blue tit clutched in its talons. It stayed a few seconds before lifting off over the hedge into the adjacent woods to enjoy its meal in peace. I could scarcely criticise its murderous instincts as at the time I was cooking a chicken curry!

Our bird feeders, just two yards from the cover of the hedge are irresistible to a stream of small birds. The blue, coal and great tits are the most nervous feeders, taking one second each way between hedge and feeder to snatch a sunflower seed before retreating, occasionally taking longer to pick at a fat ball.

The finches, bullfinches, siskins and an occasional goldfinch, are more considered, perching for seconds on end apparently careless of the threat of ambush. Long-tailed tits descend on the fat balls in a crowd, appearing several times a day but never staying for very long.

The spilled seeds and fat fragments are picked up by wood pigeons, blackbirds, dunnocks and chaffinches until driven away by squirrels which in turn give way to the dominant male pheasant.

This bird concentration acts as a magnet to sparrowhawks, especially the resident male which in the last few weeks has given me a number of thrilling near miss encounters as I have gone out to replenish the food. On one occasion it rounded the nearby cherry tree to swerve around my head while most recently it shot at breathtaking speed beneath my arm as I reached up to a feeder, the whoosh of its wings clearly audible.

I have not seen the much larger female recently but whitish, grey-tipped feathers below the feeder one morning told their own story, the probable remains of one of the pair of resident wood pigeons. A pigeon is much too large for a small male sparrowhawk but perfect prey for the more powerful female. For the following two days a single, rather jumpy pigeon foraged alone before being joined by a replacement mate.

The fact that the wood edge is such a happy hunting ground for the hawks almost certainly explains why we scarcely ever see house sparrows, starlings or collared doves in our garden although all three are common just a few hundred yards away.

Our ponds are used for bathing and drinking by all the birds but the male sparrowhawk (pictured) is the one that stays longest, secure in the knowledge that it has nothing to fear from a bigger marauding predator.