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July 2011

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Wheeling buzzards

Dick Warner urges us to look skyward!


I admit that the buzzard cannot really be classified as a garden bird. But many people have been contacting me because they've seen one and sometimes they've spotted the bird from their garden, even if it wasn't actually in it. At this time of year buzzards have a habit of soaring high in the sky on summer thermals, looking out for prey. 

Some aren't sure what exactly they've seen, often taking a guess that it was a golden eagle. Buzzards do look a bit like eagles, though they're considerably smaller - they have a wingspan of 113 to 128 centimetres while a golden eagle's can be double that. In both species the females are larger than the males. Positive identification is made a bit trickier because there is a lot of variation in the colour of their plumage. In general they are various shades of brown and the underside of the wings and body is much paler than the upper parts. The wings and tail are broad and blunt.

Buzzards became extinct in this country just over a century ago as a result of persecution by farmers and gamekeepers. But in the second half of the twentieth century a more enlightened attitude towards birds of prey began to develop. In the meantime the species had been thriving in Britain, where it was by far the commonest large bird of prey. Slowly they began to re-colonise their lost Irish territories.

It seems there were two waves of colonisation. The first birds were spotted in Northern Ireland and in Donegal. They probably came from western Scotland and they began to spread into other border counties. The second wave arrived in Wicklow, probably from Wales. Buzzards are fiercely territorial birds so the offspring of each successful brood have to head off to establish new territories for themselves. As each territory tends to be quite large, the species is colonising the country relatively rapidly. They have been spotted in all counties though breeding pairs are still concentrated in the north and east of the country.

The reason buzzards are so successful is that they're a very versatile bird of prey. Their first choice of food item is a small to medium-sized mammal. If rabbits are plentiful they'll feed on them exclusively but they're able to tackle a hare and are happy to eat squirrels, rats and mice. They'll also prey on frogs, lizards, large beetles and even forage for earthworms on freshly ploughed fields. They can occasionally be seen feeding on road kills or other carrion but they don't do this to the same extent as red kites. They're normally not agile enough to catch other birds but occasionally a pheasant or a rook will make a mistake and end up on the buzzard's extensive menu.

They have two main hunting methods. The first one is to soar on air currents without flapping their wings while searching the ground below for possible prey. They often soar several hundred metres above the ground so their eyesight is phenomenal. If a prey item is spotted they fold their wings and swoop down to grip it in their talons.

This hunting method works well if they're hunting for rabbits among furze bushes. But if they're concentrating on small prey they often perch motionlessly on a tree branch, telegraph pole or fence post, scanning the ground around them - even a buzzard finds it hard to spot a beetle or a shrew from an altitude of three hundred metres!

Buzzards are exciting birds to watch, as they wheel lazily around high in the sky, particularly so because for several generations our skies have been devoid of large birds of prey. So next time you're out in the garden look upwards and check for a large, brown bird soaring on blunt wings which separate out into individual primary feathers at the tips.

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