In 2005 when I lived in St Anne’s on Sea I heard an ungodly racket and glanced out the window. A sparrowhawk had flown in and attacked a starling. The sparrowhawk had the starling pinned to the ground and was mantling its prey as I watched with a fascinated horror, and a camera, from inside the house.
The next few minutes were pretty gruesome as the sparrowhawk carefully attended to its victim which continued to belt out a series of chilling screeches until eventually it had no life left. It was not, for me, comfortable viewing.
Today I heard the same noise again. This time, 7 years on, in Durham. A sparrowhawk had flown in to the bird table. This has happened before. But today was different. It stayed. Sparrowhawks are opportunists. Hit and Run. Boom and Zoom. They fly in, target, and then move on. But this one was hanging around, watching all the frantic sparrows and tits that were shouting out their alarm calls within the shrubbery.
I watched for a minute or two, and then, comfortable as I am nowadays with my anthropomorphism, grabbed the camera and headed out. The sparrowhawk only flew of, empty handed, as I approached, and the ‘nice’ birds heaved a sigh of relief.
I can see Chris Packham’s fascination with this raptor, and its large, mean, malevolent (there’s the anthropomorphism again) eye. My problem with the sparrowhawk, as it is with my three domestic pet cats, is their distressing lack of compassion in dispatching their prey. No neat bite behind the neck, just a functional, leisurely and sedate consumption of their dinner. And it dies when it dies. The efficiency of the biological imperative is understandable but that doesn’t make it any the less disquieting.