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Birds of prey are an evolutionary triumph of precision engineering

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Friday, 30 August 2013

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This edited article about birds originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.

Kestrel, and chicks,  picture, image, illustration

A Kestrel and chicks by R B Davis

The arrival of any of the 275 or more species of birds of prey which are found around the world is usually announced by the other birds. Cries of alarm are set up and hurried flights away from an area make all the other creatures there well aware of the approaching danger.

Although birds of prey are highly proficient at flying and killing, they are not always good parents, and they often prefer to adapt the deserted nest of some other bird and rear a family in this rather than build a nest of their own.

Birds of prey have been used for hunting for centuries. At one time, many noble gentlemen kept falconers to look after their precious birds. Even today in Great Britain, there are a number of falconers’ clubs that take an active interest in birds of prey and actually keep and hunt falcons in the traditional way.

A word of warning to would-be falconers. Birds of prey should never be considered as pets. They are working birds, and as such need careful, specialised attention that is both difficult and expensive to provide.

There are a number of good, well-organised falconers’ clubs and societies which are deeply interested in the birds and their natural history. Unfortunately, there are also groups of people who regard birds of prey as commercial propositions, both for exhibition and sales purposes.

Watching a bird such as an eagle hunting is watching an animal at its natural peak of adaptation to its environment. Its keen eyes sweep over the ground as it soars overhead, and its final plunge on to the prey (which is killed instantly by the bird’s claws) is just as natural as a lizard is eating an insect, or a cow is chewing the cud. This is the way a bird of prey must act if it is to survive.

The Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is probably the most admired of all the birds of prey. This large, majestic bird grows to about 35 ins. in length from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail. Not so common as at one time, it confines its wanderings to mountains, moorlands and lonely sea cliffs. In the British Isles, these birds are rarely seen out of Scotland.

The Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) is fairly common along the marsh wastelands of the south-east coast of England. Larger than other harriers (over 20 ins.), these birds are true to their name in that they build their nests in reeds or marshlands.

A smaller bird is the Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus) which grows to about 16 ins. in length. It is much more widespread in its distribution, being found in many marshy or moorland areas of England, Wales and in parts of Southern Ireland.

Merlins (Falco columbarius) are small, very attractive falcons that grow to about 12 ins. long. They are not common in the southern part of Britain but are found in almost every other area of open moorland and near sea cliffs.

Hen Harriers (Circus cyaneus) frequent open moorland and sandy dunes. Exceptional specimens may grow to 20 ins. or so long, but usually they are slightly smaller than this. Identification is fairly easy because, although other similar birds have white rumps, the Hen Harrier’s markings are much more conspicuous.

Buzzards are broad-winged birds growing to 20 ins. or more in length. They prefer the rocks and mountain slopes of the west coast. The Buzzard’s scientific name is Buteo buteo.

The Kestrel (Falco trinnunculus) is probably the most common of all the British falcons. Its hovering flight over fields and moors is easily recognisable.

The Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni) at 12 ins. long is about 1¬Ω ins. shorter than the Kestrel. It is not by any means common in Britain and is considered by ornithologists to be a vagrant (a wanderer).

Sparrow Hawks (Accipiter nisus) are found all over Europe and are even seen near larger towns and cities. When in flight, they may be identified by their short, rounded wings and comparatively long tails. Males grow to 12 ins. long.

Both the Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus) and the Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus) are uncommon in Britain and are classed as vagrants.

The Gyr Falcon (Falco rusticolus) prefers the Arctic regions, although it is an occasional visitor to the shores of the British Isles. These extremely quick-moving birds are the largest of the falcons, growing to about 22 ins. in length. The Greenland Falcon is a local variety of this bird.

With its long, forked tail, the Kite (Milvus milvus) is fairly easy to distinguish if seen in flight along the wooded hillsides which it frequents. Kites are not small birds and can grow up to 24 ins. They kill rabbits and hares with comparative ease.

Considered by some ornithologists as a summer visitor to Britain, the Hobby (Falco subbuteo) is a smallish (12 in.) bird of prey which is much more common on the Continent.

Even rarer is the Red-footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus). Although the same body-size as the Hobby, it has longer, pointed wings and normally lives in the most southern and easterly countries in Europe.

A true “falconer’s bird,” the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) is a strong, fast-flying bird which is said to be able to dive on to its prey at speeds of up to 200 m.p.h. Its fairly large size (about 18 ins.) allows it to catch birds the size of a pigeon on the wing.

Goshawks (Accipiter gentilis) are similar to Sparrow Hawks but are larger (22 ins. or so) and their white undertail feathers are much more obvious and fluffy. Goshawks are also considered “falconers’ birds” and are capable of killing small mammals and medium-sized birds.

White-tailed Eagles (Haliaetus albicilla) are extremely rare in the British Isles. They are said to frequent shorelines, feeding on dead animals such as fish or other birds.

Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) are now known to be returning to the British Isles more frequently, and are even breeding in certain very secluded areas. These are true fish eagles, catching their food by diving into the water, grasping the fish in a strong claw and then carrying it off to be eaten.

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