Of all our common birds, it is the native Sparrowhawk that seems to stimulate the most debate. Vilified by many because it is a predator of other birds, the Sparrowhawk has been the target of those who believe that the declines of many smaller birds can be laid at the door of a recovering raptor population. In some ways it is easy to understand why fingers of blame should be directed at the Sparrowhawk. Its population is recovering from decades of persecution and the creeping effects of now-banned pesticides. With this recovery has come an increasing use of gardens, where the Sparrowhawks may take birds that have gathered to feed. For many garden birdwatchers, the sight of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ is distressing and they feel a certain amount of guilt that such a predator should treat their garden as an avian diner.
Sparrowhawks are dependent upon smaller birds and in years when the abundance of such birds falls so does Sparrowhawk breeding success. This link between predator and prey populations is one that has been well studied and, as ecological theory would predict, there is no evidence to suggest that Sparrowhawks have, in any way, brought about the widespread declines seen in species like Tree Sparrow, Song Thrush or House Sparrow. All of the available evidence points instead to changes in the nature of our countryside and the ways in which we exploit the land; highlighting, for example, how agricultural intensification has driven many of the observed declines.
To my mind, many of our reactions to the Sparrowhawk as a predator come from our own cultural values. We seem to value some creatures above others. Birds and mammals come at the top of the list and reptiles, amphibians and various invertebrates come much lower down. Even within groups there is a clear hierarchy – we like hamsters but don’t like rats. So, while we might welcome the Kestrel (which feeds mainly on small mammals), we don’t tolerate the Sparrowhawk because it feeds on the very birds (like Robins and Blackbirds) that come near the top of our list of cultural value. Think of your own garden; is there any indignation when a Blackbird pulls a worm from your lawn or when a Song Thrush smashes open the shell of a snail? No? Then, why should there be an outcry when a Sparrowhawk kills a Starling? All these different acts of predation are part of the natural system; all involve native species; so is it right that we should pass judgement on what is and what is not acceptable? The return of our native Sparrowhawk should be celebrated as a conservation success story and not used as a scapegoat for our own failings.