Sparrowhawks v. Pigeons

Birders mainly are mild-mannered.  Mostly we agree with one another.  We are in favor of preserving as much wild habitat as possible for birds, we are polite to one another even when disagreeing about what kind of warbler that is over there in those bushes, and hardly ever get into fisticuffs with one another.

Occasionally however, disagreements erupt.  One such recurring disagreement is between pigeon fanciers and everybody else.  This disagreement arises because many species of hawks, accipters and falcons are pigeon fanciers also.  They enjoy eating them.

The latest such disagreement rages in Scotland.  Pigeon lovers want Scottish Sparrowhawks removed from about 40 pigeon lofts on private land kept by people who race pigeons.

First, we’d better define what we mean by a Sparrowhawk.  The term is in common use around the world and often describes different raptor species.  And, as we told you before, we have a friend who divides all raptors — except eagles — into two species, “Sparrow Hawks” and “Chicken Hawks,” the distinction based solely on whether the raptor is large enough to carry away a full grown chicken or only a little sparrow — our friend takes an unscientific delight in naming the birds he sees.

In Great Britain, the word “Sparrowhawk” describes Accipiter nisus. Larger than Kestrels, they are sometimes confused with Peregrine Falcons or Goshawks.  Like those species, the females are larger than the males. The females are large enough to take a pigeon but the males manage only smaller song birds.

This week we had news that an attempt is to be made in Scotland to relocate Sparrowhawks which, allegedly are preying on about 40 lofts of released racing pigeons.  At a cost of several hundred thousand pounds, the project is causing some controversy.  Experts estimate that Sparrowhawks take fewer than one percent of the pigeons, that they will simply find their way back, or that other hawks will immediately move into the vacated ecological niche caused by the removal.  The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also weighed in, noting that Sparrowhawks are often injured when trapped.

But The Scottish Homing Union, representing about 3500 pigeon keepers is delighted.  One of its leaders reports that watching a hawk kill a pigeon is “totally devastating. . . It takes about 20 minutes to kill a pigeon and it can be horrific.”

We accept the testimony of that pigeon lover.  Except for one piffling point: If she loves pigeons so much, why did she stand by and watch for twenty minutes as one was tortured to death, rather than just shoo the Sparrowhawk away?  Nevertheless, we believe her.  Oh, one other minor point: What exactly takes so long for a hawk to dispatch a pigeon?  We don’t know about Scottish Sparrowhawks, but the hawks around here don’t take nearly that long.  One bite removes the pigeon’s head from its body as efficiently as a guillotine.  The pigeons we have seen taken didn’t live 20 seconds, let alone 20 minutes. Nevertheless, if her testimony is good enough for the Scottish Government, it is good enough for us. Send those Sparrowhawks to Siberia.

How else can pigeons ever expect to get to the top of the avian food chain?

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