Monday, 31 December 2012

Is that slippers you're wearing?

Staring bleary-eyed out of the window this morning, something caught my attention. There was a largish bird on the garden fence. A closer look revealed it was a sparrowhawk, a young male (brown like an adult female, but smaller).

There was something very odd about him. He appeared to be wearing slippers like the ones my mum used to wear in the '70s, you perhaps know the kind: black, fluffy and trimmed with feathers. Around each foot was a tangled mass of dark, downy feathers, and some bits of grass. The feathers reveal what this sparrowhawk had been up to this morning, what sparrowhawks are good at - catching and eating birds. The feathers had got stuck round his toes as he plucked and ate his victim in the dull light of an overcast dawn.

A sparrowhawk is a noble, graceful bird, but this one was dancing about on the fence in a very strange, ungainly fashion.

Sparrowhawks have long, yellow toes and sharp talons which are ideal for catching and holding onto prey. They have long, thin legs so they can reach into vegetation to grab hiding birds. Their broad wings allow for amazing agility in the air and they can fly through startlingly small spaces after their prey.

An unwanted side-effect of the toes and talons seems to be that it's hard to disentangle unwanted feathers from them. The bird's frustration was plain to see as he shuffled from foot to foot, trying to pull the down off with his beak, and then wiping it on the fence. By the time he flew off into my neighbour's garden, some of the feathers had gone but it looked like it might take a while to sort the rest out...
male sparrowhawk above in the cottage garden at Wat Tyler Country Park, Pitsea. I was lucky enough to be in the cottage and see this bird go for blue tits around the feeders. He failed, and seemed to sit there a while, pondering what went wrong? So I sneaked outside and grabbed this picture.