Monday, 10 December 2012

Week 1: Common Buzzard (Buteo Buteo)

The Common Buzzard was @SpeciesofUK from 2nd to 8th December 2012.

Common Buzzards are the UK's most widespread and common Bird of Prey.  They breed in every UK county.

Common Buzzard
[Source: Arend from Oosterhout, Netherlands]

Buzzard numbers are up dramatically since the 1960s, from 16,000 in 1966 to 70,000 now.1 This is linked to rabbits gaining resistance to myxomatosis in the 1950s. They spread out from the hilly woodsides of the north and west of the country to the flatter south and east in the late twentieth century, as this infographic shows.

As well as rabbits, voles are popular prey, as are frogs and insects.2 Buzzards have been known to take pheasant poults on occasion, which actually led to an unusual proposal earlier in 2012 to destroy buzzards' nests to control numbers. Fortunately this crazy idea was soon ditched.3

Identifying a Buzzard

Distinctive features of a buzzard include a smallish head, a short and thick neck (giving a 'hunched shoulders' look when perched on telegraph poles), and a overall compact look.

When perched, look for the white 'necklace' of feathers on the breast. This is most visible on birds with darker plumage.4

In flight, when soaring look for large rounded wings held just above the body, 'fingering' of the wing tips, and a fanned tail. When gliding (faster flight) the wings and tail narrow and the flight is interspersed with three sharp flaps.5

Buzzard Plumage
[Source: Aviceda]

Seen from below the plumage is extremely variable but you can look out for the dark wing tips and the barred tail.6 Have a look at a picture of a buzzard with very light plumage, and another with darker plumage.

Although there are 28 buzzard species in the Buteo genus, the common buzzard is the only one resident to the UK. In addition, a handful of 'rough-legged buzzards' make it to our shores each year.7

Buzzards in Literature

'The Buzzards' by Martin Armstrong speaks of

          A buzzard and his mate who took their pleasure
          Swirling and poising idly in golden light.
          On great pied motionless moth-wings borne along,
          So effortless and so strong.

An old English name for a buzzard (or similar bird of prey) is a “puttock.” In Shakespeare:

          O blest, that I might not! I chose an eagle, And did avoid a puttock.
                                                                                      Cymbeline I, 1

In Spenser's Faerie Queene:

          Some like to hounds, some like to Apes, dismayd, / Some like to Puttockes, all in plumes arayd.

In Gaelic, 'An Clanham' is a buzzard, here in a poem (with English translation) by Maoilios Caimbuel, while in Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, a buzzard provides a different perspective on the traumatic opening scene: "I see us from three hundred feet up, through the eyes of the buzzard we'd watched earlier." The species even appear in Cervantes's Don Quixote: "I know no more about the government of islands than a buzzard."

Buzzards in Action

Watch videos of a buzzard catching a rat, or a male buzzard performing the 'rollercoaster' to attract a mate.

The buzzard makes a plaintive mewing call 'peea-ay,' which could be mistaken for a cat's miaow.8 You can listen to a recording of this.

Buzzard in Close-Up
[Source: Spencer Wright from North Walsham, England]

Buzzards (like other birds of prey) are commonly 'mobbed' by other birds, particularly crows & gulls, who see them as a threat. 'Mobbing' is a recognised form of bird behaviour. It usually involves loud calling & group harassing of the other bird.9

Buzzards make their nest 2/3rds up a mature tree, usually near a clearing or the forest edge. Buzzards are very adaptable to range of habitats but the best is a mix of open land (for hunting) & woodland (for nesting). Buzzards tend to produce 2-4 eggs, raising 1-2 young. Juveniles move to their own territory but not too far away.10 Have a look at a nest, and some near-fledged chicks.

Strange but True...

In the USA, vultures are called buzzards & buzzards are called hawks! Confusing!11


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