Well, that was a thrill! I’ve just come back from walking the dog through the wood, and witnessed a bit of nature drama. So you may as well share it.
As Jake and I strolled down the lane, I heard a flutter and a loud “Thwack” about 30 feet ahead, and maybe forty feet up in the oak trees. I looked up to see a clump of leaves waving around, and thought I’d panicked a wood pigeon so much it had hit the tree.
Wood pigeons are large (and tasty) creatures, disliked by farmers, with an endearing and very English call, but they seem to delight in taking off through trees as clumsily as possible, with much clapping of wings and collisions with foliage:
In this case, I saw no bird, but as we continued, suddenly a large bird of prey took off from the roadside and sped away through the wood. Where it had been there was a juvenile wood pigeon, stone cold dead (well, stone warm dead anyway), with a broken neck and no other marks.
It had died no more than ten seconds earlier, up in the trees, but had dropped, with its predator, so quickly that I’d not even seen it.
So which raptor was to blame, since I’d not got a good enough view to be sure? A goshawk might do it, since they are dedicated woodland birds, and pretty large. But they are also as rare as hen’s teeth nowadays, and I’ve heard no reports of them hereabouts.
A sparrowhawk will take wood-pigeons, sometimes at speed. But they are messy hunters, and tend to just hold on to their larger prey and peck away in the hope that it will eventually stop struggling. But they prefer smaller birds, and in any case when I’ve seen them before, they were not willing to abandon their prey, covering it with their wings even as I walked up and took photos.
That just leaves the iconic peregrine falcon, a pair of which lives hereabouts, though they are usually seen high in the sky. Their strategy is to stoop at 230mph and take out airborne pigeons in one blow with a fisted foot. This is not a ploy to be used in thickly wooded country, but my guess is the falcon took out the pigeon just above the canopy, caught the foliage whilst still descending at speed with its prey, and recovered in time to land – only to be accidentally chased off by a passing labrador and his owner.
So I seem to have witnessed my first peregrine falcon kill – still a rare bird (1500 pairs in the UK), and an even rarer thing to see. What impresses me most, though, was the sheer force evident in the sound of the kill. It sounded like a pigeon hitting a tree – it was in fact a raptor hitting the pigeon.
Here’s how it’s done: