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Birding with Nico Myburgh
Cover, Village Life No 37

From Issue No 37

Chickens, be warned!


Black SparrowhawkAccipiter melanoleucus (Afrikaans: Swart Sperwer)


The Black Sparrowhawk is the largest member of the sparrowhawk family, with the male weighing about 540 grams and the female about 900 grams. Except for this size difference, the male and female look alike.

The species is widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa, and in South Africa occurs in the northern and eastern regions. The birds were absent from the southwestern Cape until the 1970s, and by 1990 they had appeared even in the Cape Peninsula, where there now are a number of nests. The two nests pictured here were the first two nests of this species on the coastal side of the Helderberg Mountains (c. 1984).

Black Sparrowhawks are widely regarded as being the most accomplished hunters of all the sparrowhawks, mainly because of their love for domestic chickens! The writer Leslie Brown once said the best way to find out if there are Black Sparrowhawks in an area is to put up a small cage with a chicken inside: if there are Black Sparrowhawks, they will appear like magic and try to get at the chicken. They also take mice and other small rodents like moles, and quite often will catch birds as well. We actually saw a sparrowhawk carrying a small tortoise in its talons, but unfortunately it did not bring it into the nest where we were photographing.

At both nests we saw the birds bring in bunches of Eucalyptus leaves, sometimes so many the chick was completely covered. We noted other species of birds of prey doing the same. In Bushmanland a Snake Eagle brought Eucalyptus leaves to its nest, although the nearest source was 31 kilometres away. Whether this is done to shade the chicks or for some other reason, we do not know.

The Black Sparrowhawk may steal a few chickens where they can, but this is a small price to pay to have such beautiful birds around. If anyone is planning to shoot a Black Sparrowhawk for taking chickens, ask him to send me an account for the losses, and I shall see to it that the bill is settled immediately!

Near the one nest where we were taking photographs a man with a large property had a loft with feral pigeons, which were let out to fly every day at 5 p.m. As is usual with pigeon fanciers, a flag is raised, and the birds may not return until the flag is lowered. Every single day while we were watching the nest, the adults came back to the nest with a pigeon, neatly plucked (many other birds of prey do this – they have a plucking perch, such as a dry log or a big rock, on which they perch while plucking).

We went to see the friendly owner of the pigeon loft. He was not at all worried about the loss of at least two pigeons a day. He said the sparrowhawks were welcome to have their daily pigeon, as he had too many anyway! As a result of all this nutritious food, the chicks flourished and fledged in record time.

These happenings all took place while I was still curator of the Helderberg Nature Reserve. A week or two later I received a radio call to go and see the vet, Dr Peters. I must immediately come, he said, to give him advice. He had a dead bird of prey on his hands, which I identified as a Black Sparrowhawk. The story he told was interesting, to say the least. Ward Gant of Lourensford was a very keen pigeon fancier and had the biggest pigeon loft in Somerset West. The man who looked after the pigeons had lowered the flag for the birds to return when there was a big commotion and birds were all flapping around inside. Then he saw what the trouble was: a bird of prey had come into the loft and the pigeons were in a panic. He picked up the broom and scored a direct hit, and the bird crashed to the floor. Just then Mr Gant, who had heard the commotion, came in to investigate. After hearing the story of what had happened, he picked up the lifeless bird and immediately took it to Dr Peters’s surgery, so that it might be identified. Dr Peters said he should leave it on the table and he would find out. He phoned the municipality and they contacted me on the radio to go to Dr Peters’s surgery. Fortunately I was able to help him. Early the next morning I received another message to go to Dr Peters again.

Dr Peters had a blanket on his table and on it was lying the Black Sparrowhawk. The previous day, Dr Peters had forgotten to drop the carcass of the bird in the refuse drum which was collected by the municipality each morning. That particular morning he had picked up the bird to go and dump it in the drum, but then he felt that the bird was still quite warm. He gave it an injection, then called me up. I took the bird home and by noon that day it was sitting up – very groggy, but alive. I put it in the special cage I had in the nature reserve, and for the next five days the bird had to be force-fed. Dr Peters visited again and gave it another injection. Three weeks later the bird was fit to be released again – thereby helping to establish the species in the southwestern Cape.


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The chick has just eaten a pigeon, and the mother Black Sparrowhawk is removing the only remaining bit, the foot

The chick has just eaten a pigeon, and the mother Black Sparrowhawk is removing the only remaining bit, the foot

Bird photographer's hide in tree

This is what it takes to photograph a bird of prey on its nest: ladders and even a rope ladder were needed to reach hides constructed high up in trees

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