Country diary: an ambitious young hawk has killed her last thrush

Welburn, North Yorkshire: As her hunting improved she became a comet, a thunderclap. Then she met a car

A dead juvenile female sparrowhawk
A dead juvenile female sparrowhawk. Photograph: Amy-Jane Beer
A dead juvenile female sparrowhawk. Photograph: Amy-Jane Beer

Last modified on Sat 28 Nov 2020 10.52 EST

Back in August, we returned from a walk to find all hell breaking loose in the front garden. Led by frantic robins and wrens, every bird in the valley was firing vocal bullets into the unmown grass around my son’s swing, where a mantling, snatching thing was making a ghastly botch of murder.

As we watched, a pair of furious eyes blazed from the melee, then two dark wings clobbered the air in a take-off so laboured I thought it might signify injury. Then I saw the cargo – a song thrush, dangling from one yellow foot like an inside-out umbrella. Very likely the same bird that spent the spring lockdown giving us his adamant version of How Things Should Be from the top of the swing. Those evening proclamations fortified and reassured us like a gold locket worn close to the heart.

I stalked the hawk. She was young – the thrush was a wildly ambitious target for a novice. She could only manage 20 metres of heaving half-flight at a time and after three bouts she went to ground behind a fallen tree.

I gave her five minutes to at least end the torment of her quarry, then crept to peek over the log. She was closer than I’d thought. For a split second I stared, she glared, her irises the colour of pineapple flesh. Then she fled under the hedge, leaving the carcass behind. Christ, if she didn’t come back to eat it, I’d have made things worse.

She came back, thank goodness. That day and others. And her hunting improved. She became a comet, a thunderclap, a shadow somehow able to slide under doors. I never got so close again, until now.

Our lane leads directly on to the A64. The driver needn’t have been speeding – the bird almost certainly was. Now she lies in my hand, wings folded so tight that the primary feathers interleave with the sheaf of her tail.

Her head is loose on her neck and when her beak snags my jumper she seems to glance up, and for the heart-jolting moment our eyes meet a second time I think she might be alive.

A life made, in part, of song thrush. And as long as I remember to remember, this place is made of them both.

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