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A Sparrowhawk's Lament

A Sparrowhawk's Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring

David Cobham
with a foreword by Chris Packham
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    A Sparrowhawk's Lament
    Book Description:

    Britain is home to fifteen species of breeding birds of prey, from the hedgerow-hopping Sparrowhawk to the breathtaking White-tailed Eagle. In this handsomely illustrated book, acclaimed British filmmaker and naturalist David Cobham offers unique and deeply personal insights into Britain's birds of prey and how they are faring today. He delves into the history of these marvelous birds and talks in depth with the scientists and conservationists who are striving to safeguard them. In doing so, he profiles the writers, poets, and filmmakers who have done so much to change the public's perception of birds of prey. Thanks to popular television programs, the Victorian myth that any bird with a hooked beak is evil has been dispelled. However, although there are success stories--five birds of prey that were extinct have become reestablished with viable populations--persecution is still rife: so much so that one bird of prey, the Hen Harrier, became extinct in England as a breeding bird in 2013.

    Featuring drawings by famed wildlife artist Bruce Pearson, this book reveals why we must cherish and celebrate our birds of prey, and why we neglect them at our peril. InA Sparrowhawk's Lament, you will learn how the perfection of the double-barreled shotgun sounded a death knell for British birds of prey in the nineteenth century, how the conscription of gamekeepers during two world wars gave them a temporary reprieve, how their fortunes changed yet again with the introduction of agricultural pesticides in the 1950s, why birds of prey are vital to Britain's ecosystems and cultural heritage - and much more.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5021-1
    Subjects: Zoology, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-2)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 3-3)
    (pp. 5-5)
    Chris Packham

    All birds are equal, but some are more equal than others. It’s a simple truth that as a group our raptors command more attention than the majority of our other bird fauna, and always have done. I’m often asked by young and old which is my favourite bird. It’s a very difficult question but only because I struggle to separate Sparrowhawk and Kestrel. And when I bounce the question back, Peregrine, Golden Eagle and Osprey frequently betray a similar passion for birds of prey.

    I spent the summer of ‘76 returning a brood of Barn Owls to the wild in...

    (pp. 6-7)

    I was in hospital waiting for an operation for colon cancer when I first read this anonymous fifteenth-century poem, which I have calledA Sparrowhawk’s Lament. It set me thinking. In 15 minutes they would be coming to wheel me down to the theatre. Times like these concentrate the mind wonderfully. Why, in this poem, is a male Sparrowhawk worrying about the fear of dying? Then the bond between man and hawk or falcon was iron-clad. For over 3,000 years man had depended on their hunting skills for his next meal. Was the Sparrowhawk able to look into a crystal...

  5. THE SPARROWHAWK British Isles population (2006–10): 35,000 pairs (declining)
    (pp. 9-25)

    Before starting on our quest, Bruce asked me about the incident that had sparked my interest in the Sparrowhawk. I told him that my Damascene moment with a Sparrowhawk was not on the road to Damascus but on the road to Docking in Norfolk. It was midsummer and I was following another car. There were woods on either side of the road. The car in front of me swerved slightly. I slowed down and saw the reason why. A bird lay twitching on the side of the road.

    It was a male Sparrowhawk, not much bigger than a Mistle Thrush....

  6. THE OSPREY British Isles population (2006–10): 250 pairs (increasing)
    (pp. 26-41)

    The first rare British bird of prey that I saw was an Osprey. It was 26 April 1946 and my brother Richard and I were walking across a meadow towards the large lake at Castle Howard in Yorkshire. Our long-suffering mother had just dropped us off while she went to visit her mother, Granny Strickland, at nearby Huttons Ambo. During the school holidays we often came here to check out the duck population. During the autumn and winter there were always plenty of Mallard, Teal and Wigeon accompanied by Tufted Duck and Pochard. We had once been lucky enough, during...

    (pp. 42-58)

    As I left Roy Dennis at the end of my trip to Scotland, thanking him for his help, he shook my hand and said, “Don’t forget, David – a Honey Buzzard isn’t a buzzard and it doesn’t eat honey!”

    There has always been a certain mystique about this bird and the confusion about its name has never been corrected. Carl Linnaeus in 1746 exacerbated the problem when he assigned to the Honey Buzzard the scientific namePernis apivorous – pernisfrom the Greek for a type of hawk andapivorousfrom the Latinapis,a bee, andvorus,eating. I had never...

  8. THE RED KITE British Isles population (2006–10): 1,600 pairs (increasing)
    (pp. 59-75)

    It is May, 1990. Bruce and I park at the RSPB reserve at Dinas, which is ten miles north of Llandovery in Wales. It is a blazing hot day and we are making a quick recce for a film shoot ofKite Country, an episode for a new six-part series for Channel 4.Birdscapeis Bruce’s idea – a film featuring his favourite landscapes and the birds that inhabit them. We leave the car park and join the boardwalk that leads into the reserve. Now and then through the alders we catch glimpses of a spectacular fast-flowing river, the Afon tywi,...

  9. THE WHITE-TAILED EAGLE British Isles population (2010): 64 pairs (increasing)
    (pp. 77-93)

    I am standing on the edge of a meadow in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. It is the middle of winter. Mrs Watanabe, the farmer’s wife, appears carrying a bucket of grain. She is well wrapped up against the cold. I am here with a film crew making a film about the Japanese attitude to wildlife. This particular episode is about the Red-crowned Crane, a symbol of happiness to the Japanese. Every day during the winter, when the land is locked solid by snow and ice, Mrs Watanabe puts out corn for the grateful cranes which come to her field to...

  10. THE MARSH HARRIER British Isles population (2006–10): 320–380 pairs (increasing)
    (pp. 95-111)

    In 1952 I was at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge reading zoology, botany and geology when Dr Morton, my mother’s family doctor, rang me. Would I like to go with him to Horsey in Norfolk to see the Marsh Harriers? I knew that they were rare, very rare, with only three pairs breeding in the British Isles. I had heard that Major Anthony Buxton had only bought Horsey because there were harriers breeding there. I said yes straight away.

    Early the following Sunday, Dr Morton called for me at the porter’s lodge and off we went. I assumed that Dr...

  11. THE HEN HARRIER British Isles population (2010): 630 pairs (declining)
    (pp. 112-130)

    When I first became involved in conservation in the early 1970s I joined a number of organizations, including The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Hawk Trust. The Hawk trust particularly interested me, as it was the only body dedicated solely to ‘Working to conserve wild birds of prey and their habitats.’ Later in 1987 the Hawk Trust published Colin Shawyer’s epic reportThe Barn Owl in the British Isles – Its Past, Present and Future.It showed that the Barn Owl’s population had declined dramatically since the previous survey 50 years earlier. The Barn Owl became the...

  12. THE MONTAGU’S HARRIER British Isles population (2006–10): 12–16 pairs (stable)
    (pp. 131-147)

    In the 1980s, when I lived much closer to the coast, I often used to walk my Springer Spaniels, Nathan and Gatsby, along the sea wall from Burnham Deepdale to Burnham Norton. This stretch of sea wall was the final link in reclaiming land from the sea by the Holkham estate and was completed in 1825. It was a good walk, five miles there and back, and whatever the time of year there were plenty of birds to be seen.

    In the winter there were big, densely packed flocks of Brent Geese feeding inland on Alastair Borthwick’s winter wheat. Looking...

  13. THE GOSHAWK British Isles population (2006–10): 280–430 pairs (increasing)
    (pp. 148-163)

    It was early August 1983 and just beginning to get dark. A Tawny Owl called in the distance. I was standing in the road opposite Glebe Farm on the edge of the village with Cliff Howard. He and I lived nearby and Cliff had always been interested in birds of prey. He knew that I had trained a Goshawk and had seen the film I had made on television, an adaptation of T.H. White’s bookThe Goshawk.Cliff had started in the right way, by training a Kestrel, an excellent bird for a beginner. But he lusted after a Goshawk...

  14. THE COMMON BUZZARD British Isles population (2009): 57,000–79,000 pairs (increasing)
    (pp. 165-181)

    I am watching Gordon Brown, our vet, preparing a male Common Buzzard for dissection. We are hoping to find out what made Aristotle (384–322 BC) state that the Buzzard had three testicles,triorchisin Greek. This mistake was perpetuated for centuries. Aldrovandus (1522–1605), who dissected a male Buzzard, supported Aristotle by stating that he had found three stones (testicles). A little later Christopher Merret (1614–95), who published the first comprehensive list of British birds, compounded the mistake calling the BuzzardButeo triorchis.John Ray and Francis Willughby’sOrnithologia,published in 1678, put the record straight after they...

  15. THE GOLDEN EAGLE British Isles population (2003): 440 pairs (stable)
    (pp. 183-201)

    The first time I saw a Golden Eagle I was climbing in the Hochschwab range of limestone mountains in the Austrian Northern Alps. It was a 300 metre high cliff and, slowly but surely, our group made good progress. Towards the end of the climb, Kurt, our guide, who obviously had great faith in me, told me to lead on the next pitch. The last part of the pitch meant traversing right around a huge slab of overhanging limestone. There was a 200 metre drop below and, although there were hand-holds, to keep moving I had to lean out over...

  16. THE KESTREL British Isles population (2009): 46,000 pairs (declining)
    (pp. 203-217)

    Tony Huston, expert falconer and friend, had been flying his Peregrine Falcon at Beacon Hill just outside Burnham Market. I was a spectator, photographer and beater. Tony’s Pointer, Nelson (black ‘patch’ over one eye), had found a covey of Grey Partridge, had held his point while the falcon mounted to ‘wait on’ 300 metres or so above us. At the critical moment the covey had been flushed. With an awe-inspiring stoop, the falcon had cut out one of the birds and killed it.

    Now we were pulling up outside my home ready for a cup of tea. As we got...

  17. THE MERLIN British Isles population (2008): 1,200 pairs (declining)
    (pp. 218-235)

    The Stricklands, my mother’s family, owned great swathes of land in Yorkshire from Whitby on the edge of the North York Moors down through the Yorkshire Wolds almost as far south as Hull. My great-great-great-grandfather, Sir William Strickland (1753–1834) was a keen amateur naturalist, following in the footsteps of the Reverend Gilbert White, author ofThe Natural History of Selborne. Like Gilbert White, he kept a detailed daily journal. There were columns for details of the weather – temperature, barometric pressure, wind, rainfall, and so on. There was also a larger space for nature notes, for when plants were first...

  18. THE HOBBY British Isles population (2009): 2,800 pairs (increasing)
    (pp. 237-251)

    It was hot and I was resting on the swing-seat at the back of the house. Shading my eyes against the glare I checked for any signs of activity. Nearby, a Spotted Flycatcher sat, hunchbacked, on its usual perch, the handle of a neglected spade. Beyond the two Sycamores at the bottom of our garden the water meadows bordering the river Wensum shimmered in the heat. With an audible click the flycatcher zapped an unwary insect. I watched it flutter up to its nest in the Wisteria behind me. Mason bees buzzed to-and-fro as they excavated galleries in the soft...

  19. THE PEREGRINE FALCON British Isles population (2002): 1,500 pairs (increasing)
    (pp. 253-268)

    I am watching a Peregrine Falcon preening. It is perched on the edge of a nest platform high up on the spire of Norwich Cathedral. Down below I can see a portion of the Cathedral Close and, beyond that, playing fields, tennis courts, the prison on the hill in the distance and the inner ring road below it which follows the river Wensum round to norwich railway station. It is a female Peregrine, always known as the ‘falcon’, She is a third larger than the male which is always referred to as the ‘tiercel’, hence tierce, a third. Watching the...

    (pp. 269-269)

    Bruce and I have come to the end of our quest to assess the state of the 15 birds of prey breeding in Britain. We now understand why the male Sparrowhawk of the fifteenth century, the musket, was right to be frightened of death, as encapsulated in the phrase in the poemA Sparrowhawk’s Lament,Timor mortis conturbat me.

    Although birds of prey have many physical qualities that we admire – the keenest eyesight, powerful talons and flesh-rending bills, thrilling hunting techniques, including the ability to stoop at 200 miles per hour to kill their prey – their pitch at the top...

    (pp. 270-270)
    (pp. 271-272)