Dawn breaks, a buzzard is perched on top of a telegraph pole it surveys the scene below as cars pass by. On the look out for hapless creatures dazzled and killed in the night, the buzzard sits motionless for hours at a time. The common buzzard (Buteo buteo) is one species that has learned to adapt to the presence of people and is currently enjoying a boom period. For most of us the buzzard will be the largest bird of prey we have the chance to spot from our gardens.
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The buzzard is a large bird with a wing span of around four feet, when soaring overhead its broad wings are reminiscent of an eagle’s with long ‘fingers’ spreading out from the wing tips.
Buzzards pair for life and stay on their territories throughout the year. On warm sunny days in winter and spring, when thermals are rising, they enjoy being able to soar and play with each other high above our heads. Their play is often aimed at tightening the bonds between the pair and may involve the passing of food from male to female.
Using thermals buzzards gain height on out-stretched wings with minimal effort. On reaching a certain altitude one of the pair will fold its wings and fall into a seemingly uncontrolled plunge towards earth, this may include a few rolls and a variety of other acrobatics. When the excitement of the fall reaches a peak the buzzard extends its wings and uses its momentum to swoop back up into the air, like a roller coaster. The bird’s wings flex and strain under the force of the air.
Distinguishing between males, females and juveniles
It isn’t always possible to distinguish between male and female buzzards, though females tend to be larger than males, a characteristic required for the extra stamina needed to lay and incubate eggs. It is, however, usually possible to distinguish juvenile birds from adults particularly when seen in flight.
Adults all have a dark band at the end of their tails but juveniles have no more than a thin dark line. Most buzzards are dark, though their colour is very variable, in France this inconsistency has been acknowledged in the buzzard’s name ‘Buse variable’. What is consistent in the buzzard’s plumage is the dark ‘elbow’ pattern on the wing and the barring on the tail.
In spring, once pairing is re-established their nest in a tree or on a crag will be refurbished, though they usually have a choice of two or three nest sites in their territory.
The female will lay between two and four eggs around the end of March or early April and sit on them for about five weeks. In that time she will depend upon the male to bring her food and even when the young birds hatch she will be reluctant to leave their sides. It takes around fifty days for the young to fledge and even then they will depend upon their parents for another two months. If they reach maturity buzzards usually live for about eight years, but the longest lived bird ever recorded was an amazing twenty five years old.
Buzzards are carnivores, it is reckoned they can catch and despatch live prey up to a weight of about one pound, anything heavier is only taken as carrion. Favourites include small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and sometimes the young of other birds, but top of the list in winter is carrion and the preponderance of road kill rabbits is very welcome to an observant buzzard sitting on top of a telegraph pole.
Another trick that buzzards often use is to follow a plough along with flocks of gulls in search of earthworms, unlike the gulls they usually walk over the broken soil rather than wasting energy by flying. This is how we see many of our buzzards in the autumn and many more will be seen standing in damp pastures looking for earthworms.
Numbers in the UK
The buzzard is very common in the north and west of the UK and is spreading quickly to all other areas, but they have had a chequered history in Britain. The clearance of woodland in the middle ages was good for buzzards, this opened up ideal habitat for them consisting of mixed woodland for nesting and open land for hunting. During the 18th and 19th centuries buzzard numbers decreased as they were persecuted by landowners but this persecution ceased during the two world wars when buzzard numbers again rose. The next collapse in their population was during the 1950s and 60s when the buzzard was struck by a double whammy. Firstly the organo-chlorine pesticides used in farming had a serious impact on their fertility and secondly the introduction of myxomatosis reduced the number of rabbits for them to eat.
If you live in the north or west you will probably be very familiar with buzzards but elsewhere in the country, stay alert. When in your garden keep one eye on the sky and you could be rewarded with the wonderful sight of a buzzard soaring on the thermals.
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