Recently my partner and I were driving along a narrow road near Kiftsgate Court Gardens, Gloucestershire, when we noticed in a large field of winter sown corn some eight or more buzzards, each standing on the ground and more or less evenly spaced across the whole field, so that they appeared to be patrolling it. I was curious, as I’d never seen such a gathering.
Buzzards are usually solitary creatures, often seen alone or in pairs circling the earth on rising thermals of warmer air. Their cry, whee-oo! is one of the most distinctive of the British bird world, often heard but not so often linked to its caller.
The buzzard has an unenviable reputation as a lazy bird, much more inclined to prey on road kill or any other dead animal it happens to find lying about than hunt for a living. In fact a buzzard, which in Scotland is known as a tourist eagle, can take a live rabbit. But like most predators, a buzzard is an opportunist. If it can find an easy meal it will take it.
Many of our most spectacular carnivores like to take carrion. It saves on energy and is less risky, especially for those that can get to a carcass first. Foxes and badgers will seek out carrion; and their scavenging behaviour in towns and suburbs is probably an extension of this instinct. Crows of course are past masters at finding opportunities for an easy meal. Insects and molluscs do their part. At the far end of the food chain are bacteria, which do the final clearing up job. In the end bacteria get us all.
Scavenging is an essential part of the cycle of life and death. Were it not there would be a lot more decomposing bodies around and valuable sources of food would be wasted, not to mention opportunities for disease created. Occasionally humans have tapped in to this primeval instinct. In places where soil is in short supply and there is little fuel for cremation, such as Tibet, sky burials were once practiced. There the carcass of a dead person would be left exposed for the vultures to feed on. In the Buddhist view the body of the deceased is but an empty shell, and might as well be put to good use, returning to nature what nature gave. The moral values we place upon such practices thus depend in part upon the environment in which they have developed.
As for my buzzards, they were probably feeding on earthworms which they will take when there isn’t much else to feed on. At this time of year the new shoots haven’t grown much, and as the weather has recently turned warmer the worms are likely to have risen to the surface. No doubt the buzzards of the area know it as a good place to go when they fancy a snack, though they were still keeping their distance from each other, as befits a buzzard.
Image Linda Martin, Flickr Creative Commons