The Plastic Goshawk

Watch out crows! There's a, er... kind of, um.. cuckoo on the prowl?
Watch out crows! There’s a, er… kind of, um.. cuckoo on the prowl?

While on the subject of goshawks (below), I couldn’t resist carrying out an experiment on the local crows, many of which have been getting rowdier and more conspicuous over the past few days. I’ve shot dozens of crows over raptor decoys, and most of these have been home-made attempts to copy buzzards or peregrines. It is possible to buy plastic peregrine decoys in the shops, but for some reason they are exorbitantly expensive. While not using a great deal more plastic than a whole-body pigeon decoy (rrp c.£2 each), peregrine decoys frequently cost more than £20, and they are sometimes seen for sale in excess of £30. This is one of the great mysteries of the countryside, and I’d be delighted to know why it is so.

Rather than fork out for a plastic peregrine, I decided to modify one of my pigeon decoys so that it resembled a male goshawk. My track record with modifying decoys is not great, and I lost three full-body mallard decoys when I painted them as goldeneye to see what impact they would have on any diving duck which happened to be passing for a photography project. I was unconvinced by the mallards’ long beaks and cut them off to resemble the goldeneye’s shorter, stubbier bill, but in so doing I left an opening through which water could enter the buoyant shell. Sure enough, I staked them out as the tide came in and one by one they sank.

It took half an hour to paint a white breast on the pigeon decoy and slap on a white eyebrow. The result was strongly reminiscent of a cuckoo, but I consoled myself with the thought that colours and patterns were probably more significant in terms of bird recognition than specific shapes. I headed off onto the hill and set the decoy up just outside a small plantation by the top moss. I knew that there would be fireworks and fury when the crows discovered the plastic hawk, but I hadn’t anticipated the rabid, expletive-laden fury the “hawk” would bring.

In fact, the decoy was a victim of its own success. The first two crows came lazily up towards it from behind, from which angle they presumably assumed they were approaching a pigeon. As soon as they saw the white breast, they exploded in horror. Rather than hang noisily within easy shooting distance, they rushed away like swallows. I’ve never seen crows behave with such terror and fury. They made sounds I’ve never heard before, and quickly rose to such a height that they were almost immediately out of range of my shotgun, which was poised behind a mossy old scots pine tree.

In seconds, three or four other crows had come in, seen the decoy and shot right up into the air, where they presumably felt safe from the low-level ambush tactics of the hawk. I was straining every angle for a chance at a crow, but they were fifty yards up in the air and while a shot might have been possible, crow control is practical, not speculative. I knew it made more sense to hold my fire and wait for another chance on another occasion, and within five minutes the crows had vanished again. They left a single lookout three hundred yards away, and this bird finally grew bored and loped away as the sun started to set.

This fascinating experiment revealed beyond all doubt that crows on my ground know everything they need to know about goshawks. I have read that goshawks will frequently kill crows, so while I sometimes fear for the blackgame, there are many redeeming features to these awesome predators. I hadn’t banked on these crows being quite so terrified of goshawks, and wonder how I can use this bizarre weapon to best effect before the lambing starts, the eggs are laid and the crows rise up the list of priorities.



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