Worth a Punt


After several days of cold and bitter hardness, the frost vanished in less than an hour yesterday afternoon. A deep veil of cloud rolled down from the North, and the cast-iron mud collapsed at once into dribbling slush.

Driving up the hill to gather some more firewood, the sound of the car disturbed a buzzard which had been squatting on a crumbled dyke by the roadside. He idly drifted across the road and passed down over the bog myrtle towards a stand of straggly willows. Gliding with classic nonchalance, he suddenly sparked into a frenzy of enthusiasm as something caught his eye in the white grass below him. Jinking abruptly between the willow twigs in a series of brisk turns, he pounced down and missed a woodcock by a matter of inches. Downed in the moss, the buzzard stood with his wingtips raised as the woodcock rushed crazily away against the dripping spread of spruces behind. The ambush had failed, but it’s only by speculative punts like these that buzzards are able to expand their hunting abilities into a more proactive realm than many assume.

It is impossible to write about buzzard behaviour without provoking roars of fury from a school of raptor enthusiasts who believe that the birds are incapable of doing anything but hunting worms and carrion. This attitude does a disservice to buzzards themselves, which are canny and opportunistic hunters with the “jack of all trades”’ ability to take a chance. I’ve seen a buzzard kill a greyhen and make short work of starlings at roost – neither of these are listed as “food items” in my bird book, but perhaps buzzards aren’t great readers.

Let’s be in no doubt that buzzards are hunters, but rather make the distinction about the extent to which they hunt, which often seems to vary from bird to bird. Shooting woodpigeons on drilled barley a few years ago, I watched a buzzard quartering over towards my plastic decoys. I don’t believe that he ever intended to “hunt” pigeons, but as he came closer to my pattern, he clearly began to wonder why this bountiful source of prey had not shown any sign of alarm. Meandering closer, he affected a kind of idle disinterest in the whole charade, then struck with surprising speed at the nearest plastic shell. Rising up dramatically with the decoy in its claws, the buzzard suddenly realized that something wasn’t right, saw me and then scarpered.

As far as I was concerned, this incident was a case in point – the buzzard was not hunting pigeons; he simply saw an opportunity and took it. If my plastic birds had been real, the punt would have paid off. Frankly, a pigeon that lets a buzzard approach to within striking distance deserves everything it gets. If yesterday’s bird had been a second faster or if the woodcock had been in anything other than tiptop condition, the game might have been very different, and it’s by these quirks that buzzards learn to expand their repertoire.


One thought on “Worth a Punt

  1. Andrew Heath

    I agree Patrick – on an autumn trip to Islay a few years ago I saw several buzzards hunting the wintering waders along the coast. Only they weren’t merely taking opportunistic chances as you describe – setting off from a distant vantage point where they were watching the feeding flocks, they went in low and fast, gliding into the final approach to avoid being seen. Just like a sparrowhawk approaching starlings over open ground. What an adaptable bird they are.


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