Death in the afternoon

The collared dove feathers on the lawn

The collared dove feathers on the lawn

One of the larger feather with just a touch of lilac

One of the larger feathers with just a touch of lilac

One of the pair of collared doves nesting in the garden

One of the pair of collared doves nesting in the garden

The female blackbird feeding one of the two chicks

The female blackbird feeding one of the two chicks

An incident today reminded me that I have not blogged about the garden birds for a while. Some of the family were staying with us over the weekend and yesterday afternoon, in a rare spell of sunshine, we sat out in the garden for a while. We were enjoying the song of a whitethroat that was gradually moving round its territory. This summer vistor sang loudly when it arrived from Africa in early May, then was quiet for a while but has resumed its lovely song. It sings mainly from the larch trees, but by the time I have located which tree or trees it seems to be in it has moved 20 yards or so to continue its aria from another tree.

At the same time as we were listening to the whitethroat we were watching a collared dove sitting quietly on a branch close to the trunk of a larch and busily preening itself. The bird sat there for a good half hour and I am sure it would be the male from the pair that is nesting in a nearby spruce tree. I could not help but thinking it was ‘on guard’ but I wondered if there was any threat with which it could cope. Collared doves are such inoffensive and gentle wee birds that I doubt it could attack anything bigger that a grain of wheat. If there was any risk to its nest it would probably do nothing more defensive than sit like a dumpling and watch.

This morning I cut the grass, and went inside for a bite of lunch about 12.30. When I came out half an hour later one part of the newly-cut grass was covered in feathers. I could see even from a distance that they were those of a collared dove, which unfortunately had been the victim of a sparrowhawk. There were 100 or so white downy feathers and about a dozen larger wing feathers with just a tinge of lilac.  The kill was less than 10 yards from the collared dove’s nest and I have no doubt the bird would be one of the pair. I checked the nest from underneath and could see no sign of a sitting bird, in fact looking up through the nest, which was little more than a loose trellis of twigs, I could see neither eggs nor chicks. Nor was there any sign of the ex-collared dove, which I assume had been carried off.

I have wondered for some time how collared doves can escape an attack by a sparrowhawk. They regularly feed out in the open and if a sparrowhawk goes for the kill the dove can’t readily fly into a thick bush like smaller birds. It certainly can’t out-fly a sparrowhawk so it seems it has little chance of escape. There are always plenty of collared doves around so it may have some strategy of which I’m unaware. Comments are welcome.

There have been literally hundreds of birds in the garden lately. Many are young birds, with the most common being greenfinch, chaffinch, blue tit, great tit, coal tit, blackbird, dunnock and woodpigeon. In the last few months we have started to get visits from house sparrows, with numbers up to around 20. There has been a pair of yellowhammers all winter and spring, and a male goldcrest. I came in to the conservatory the other day to find a male bullfinch flying about. It crashed into a window and sat on a rug, stunned. I went for the camera but when I came back there was good news and bad news. The good news was that the bullfinch immediately  flew straight out of the door. The bad news was that I got no photograph!

Unsurprisingly the garden was bereft of birds this afternoon after the sparrowhawk visit. The birds started to filter back about 3.00 pm, two hours after the kill. They were extremely wary, especially a pair of blackbirds that have successfully raised two chicks to near-independence. The two young birds came nowhere near the mealworms I had put out, and I watched the male gathering a beakful of mealworms and watching carefully for several minutes to see that the coast was clear before flying off to the cover of some large hebes and ferns where at least one of the chicks was hiding. The female followed the same careful pattern a few minutes later.

Nevertheless sparrowhawks are beautiful, dashing hunters and when they take our garden birds we must not lose sight of the fact that is what they eat. We don’t complain about blackbirds eating worms or blue tits eating greenfly. That is just the way of nature.

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