Peregrine perching on building

Jewels in the crown

The RSPB's latest appeal concerns birds of prey. Just what is it that makes them so special? Web Editor Katie Fuller offers her thoughts.

How peregrines made a come back

It wasn't long ago that you had to try hard and be lucky to see a bird of prey. They were rare, mystical birds, found only in far-flung corners of the countryside and were tricky to see, with their elusive habits and skittish nature.

Human activities were largely to blame. For example, by 1964, the UK peregrine population had been reduced by 80 per cent. The cause was pesticides used on farmland, which worked their way up the food chain and poisoned the birds. Like other birds of prey, peregrines were also subject to persecution from humans with guns, traps and poison.

Today, the situation is much different. By the late 1990s, the peregrine population had bounced back and now they can be seen in many major cities. To peregrines, tower blocks or cathedrals make ideal substitute 'cliffs' on which to build nests.

The London 'Date with nature' peregrine viewing scheme is one of the RSPB's most popular. Forty years ago, who could have imagined that such a project would have been possible?

Birds of prey in nature

Peregrines aren't the only birds of prey (also called 'raptors') that can be seen in built-up areas. For many people, a flying visit by a sparrowhawk is the closest they'll get to a wild predator in their garden. 

While some folk welcome the arrival of this specialised bird-hunter in their backyard, others fear for the future of their other garden visitors. Like peregrines, sparrowhawks also fell foul of the post-war pesticides, and it's only now that their numbers are reaching their rightful level.

Sparrowhawks are capable of taking a wide range of prey. Females are considerably larger than males and catch larger birds, up to woodpigeon size; males tend to stick to smaller species.

With broad, rounded wings, they are ultra-manoeuvrable in flight, and their long legs help them reach into bushes and hedges. In short, sparrowhawks are superbly adapted for catching birds and they have evolved side-by-side with their diverse prey species. You have to marvel at their hunting skills.

Why are birds of prey important? From an ecological perspective, they are 'top predators', perching proudly at the top of the food chain. Because populations of predators are controlled by the amount of prey available to them, the presence of a bird of prey shows that there are good numbers of its prey species present.

A spectacle in nature

For me, and many other people, the 'magic' of birds of prey goes much deeper than food chains. They are thrilling to watch, and beautiful too. Their top predator status means they will never be as numerous as other birds, so they retain a certain novelty that only adds to the experience. 

Seeing a bird of prey is usually a surprise. Often, other birds alert you to a raptor's presence: small birds raise the alarm with high-pitched calls, prompting their neighbours to flee into vegetation. On an estuary, the approach of a peregrine will be heralded by the panic of ducks, geese, gulls and waders, which scatter in all directions – the problem for the observer is then to pick out the peregrine from the chaos!

Surprisingly sociable

Most raptors are rather unsociable creatures, but red kites break the mould. They congregate at dusk to roost together, and such gatherings can reach up to 200 birds. That in itself has only been made possible by increased protection and the hugely successful reintroduction schemes, which have brought red kites back to many parts of the UK.

Perhaps because of their social nature, red kites are among the most vocal of the UK's birds of prey; they have a mournful whistling call. A flying red kite is a joy to watch: they are expert at riding the air and use their long, forked tails to 'steer'.

Flying skills

In spring and summer, hobbies migrate to the UK. Their main prey items are insects and small birds; they are the only birds able to catch swifts in flight! To watch a hobby flying after dragonfly, catching it in its talons, then transferring the unfortunate insect to its bill – all without missing a wingbeat – is fabulous.

Equally breathtaking is to watch a merlin (our smallest falcon) 'tailgating' a skylark. The lark will try every conceivable manoeuvre to shake off the merlin, and the merlin will do its best to keep up – no mean feat. Sometimes the lark will get away, sometimes not.

Part of our landscape

Though there are many parts of the country where birds of prey can be seen in good numbers, there are other places where that isn't the case. Our raptors should have been able to bounce back from the 'bad old days' of pesticide poisoning, but there are people in the UK countryside who want to stop that from happening.

Moorland that should have ghostly-grey male hen harriers floating over it, and Scottish mountainsides which ought to have eagles soaring over the summits cannot be considered 'complete' until their native birdlife has returned.