Once persecuted and besieged, buzzards have sallied from their hilly strongholds in the west to sweep the country, becoming our most numerous bird of prey. Kevin Parr enters their world
My childhood holidays always began in a state of semi-consciousness. The car would have been loaded the night before, and my parents would rise before the sun and carry us kids quietly from bed to back seat, where, snug in our dressing gowns, we would slip straight back to our dreams.
We would wake properly a few hours and 100 miles later in some misty backwater, where we would eat bowls of cereal as Mum and Dad sipped tea and relaxed in the knowledge that they had broken the back of the journey on empty roads. By now, my excitement would be beginning to bubble. Not simply because school was out and we were heading somewhere different, but because soon we would be in the land of buzzards.
Our holidays invariably took us west, to the moors of Devon or the mountains of Wales, Cumbria and the Inner Hebrides, areas where the common buzzard (Buteo buteo) still soared. After years of persecution, the wilder areas of Britain had become a refuge and not just from guns and traps, but also from the effects of intensive farming and pesticide use. The buzzard population had sunk to its nadir in the early 1960s after the extensive use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane).
DDT could bioaccumulate, meaning its properties would increase as it passed up the food chain. A raptor, sitting on the top rung, would be unable to rid itself of the chemical, and it would build up until sufficient quantity was present to kill the bird. Even small quantities could cause eggshell thinning.
In 1962, the American author and naturalist Rachel Carson released her book Silent Spring, in which she called into question the effects of DDT and other insecticides on the environment. With awareness came action, and as research gave value to Carson’s concerns, so the world sat up and took notice. The USA banned the use of DDT by farmers in 1972. Britain followed suit but not until 1984. This action, coupled with the increased protection of raptors by law, meant that the buzzard began to spread its wings once more.
The great revival
The buzzard population has increased by more than 600% since the 1960s. It is estimated that there are now between 72,529 and 90,661 pairs and they are our most common raptor, breeding in every British county. The recolonisation of Ireland, where buzzards became extinct in 1964, is also gathering pace.
The buzzard is a large bird; a female may weigh 1kg (2.2lb) and have a wingspan of 120cm (4ft), and it forms an impressive sight. Soaring on V-shaped wings, or sitting on roadside fence posts it is impossible to miss. In Scotland, the buzzard has long been touted ‘the tourist eagle’, as people impressed by the bulk of this raptor sitting on a telegraph pole mistakenly believe they are looking at something far larger – the golden eagle.
In fact, the buzzard that they actually witnessed was busy hunting. Not the most dynamic of hunts admittedly, but certainly an economical one. Anything wandering out on to the tarmac is easy to spot and catch, a task made easier still by a car doing the ‘catching’.
Adaptability is a key attribute to the buzzard’s success, particularly when the seat at the top of the food chain is so vulnerable. Buzzards love carrion because, as a food source, it requires so little effort on their part. Their bulk gives them a formidable presence on the ground and they will often take food from other raptors, especially sparrowhawks. A buzzard feasting on another bird is unlikely to have killed the meal itself.
The buzzard is, however, well known for its love of small rodents. Young rabbits, rats and voles form a large part of its diet, though its most favoured food in many areas is the earthworm. I counted 27 buzzards following a single plough in early spring, a figure far from unusual. Fields are generally tilled through the shortest days of the year when food is most difficult to come by. As a result, buzzards will gather in numbers to feast on protein-rich worms in a surprisingly calm manner given their territorial battles in the spring.
Some adult birds will migrate for the winter; the majority will remain in the same area all year round, though they tend to be wider ranging. The remaining young birds will continue to exploit the food sources that their parents taught them to, and have a greater chance of survival with less competition from the parent birds themselves. However, at the end of winter they will be driven off by their returning parents, who will be intent on re-establishing a successful territory.
The aerial displays of both male and female birds at this time can be spectacular. The birds repeatedly climb and stoop, before looping on folded wings as they undulate like giant woodpeckers. Occasionally, two birds will lock talons and tumble toward the earth in a game of aerial chicken. It is an extraordinary sight as they spin further and faster, like leaves tumbling in an autumn breeze, before breaking contact and riding away on broad wings.
Buzzards reach sexual maturity in around three years and tend to mate for life. They are fairly long lived with an average age in the wild of eight to ten years, though some individuals may survive well into their 20s. Research by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has shown that a pair will fledge on average 1.17 birds per nest, and the mortality rate of 80 percent may seem high, but is typical of all raptors.
Nests are usually in trees, invariably 6m (20ft) or higher above the ground. The buzzard loves wooded valleys, where there are places to nest and roost, and good thermals on which to hunt and display. It is this sort of habitat where the birds’ call seems most evocative. The long, haunting mew is so rich in tone it lifts the soul, though it takes a year or two before the juveniles master it.
The fight for life
Our local pair of buzzards produced one fledging last year and he was a demanding little fellow. His double screech for food would begin at dawn and continue well into darkness, rolling around my head even as I slept. “Mum! Dad!” he seemed to shout, over and over. Even when the parents slipped away to quieter climes, Trappy, as we named him, continued to plead for them.
We watched Trappy learning to hover, a useful tool with the glut of grasshoppers that filled the grassland ridge opposite the cottage. He ate little else, and shared the hillside with a pair of kestrels until Christmas, when the long autumn finally ended.
Trappy was a little lost in the cold. He pinched a pigeon or two from the local peregrines, but when they moved to the coast, his days were numbered.
He survived until the cold snap in February when, a day after he had sat looking lost on our garden fence, I found him dead beneath an oak tree. He was desperately thin, almost certainly a victim of starvation, and though I was tempted to bury him, I left him where he lay, where he would sink back into the food chain.
I did pinch a feather though; a single primary that now sits on the mantelpiece as a silent reminder to the fragility of life at the top of the food chain.