Common buzzard

Bird of the Month February 2024: Common Buzzard

I’ve written before about the chequered history of our raptors here in the UK. Most have been relentlessly persecuted over the last 200 years, some to the point of local or national extinction. Against the odds, though, some have now returned to locations they were once eradicated from. This certainly applies to the common buzzard. Once found across the UK, by the early 20th century it was restricted to the north and west of the country. Now it has largely returned to much of its former range. It has even overtaken the kestrel as our most common bird of prey. As we get closer to spring, males will start their annual courtship displays, making February a great time to look out for my latest bird of the month.

The Tourist Eagle

Common buzzards, the type species of the Buteo genus, are fairly bulky birds of prey with stocky bodies. Their wings are broad and dark-tipped. In flight, they often hold these in a shallow ‘V’ as they soar and circle over the countryside. Buzzards have relatively short tails whose undersides show a series of fine bars. As with most raptors, females are larger than males. Although their plumage is essentially a mixture of brown, cream and white, there is a huge amount of variation between individuals. Some birds are a very dark, chocolate brown with only small amounts of cream, while others are much paler overall. This can cause some identification headaches when it comes to separating them from their relative the rough-legged buzzard. This more northern species visits us in winter in variable numbers. As a general rule, rough-legged buzzards have longer wings and are more often paler.

Pale common buzzard
Some buzzards are extremely pale

Overexcited visitors to the Highlands of Scotland also often misidentify the common buzzard as the much rarer golden eagle. The superficial plumage similarities and soaring behaviour can lead many a novice astray. This has earned buzzards the nickname the ‘tourist eagle’ as a result. Golden eagles are, however, much bigger than buzzards. They also have longer, broader wings, a longer tail and proportionately larger beaks to help them deal with the larger prey they consume. Golden eagles are also generally harder to see than buzzards. This is because they prefer remoter habitats in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Calls can also help separate the two: golden eagles are largely silent while buzzards can be extremely vocal. Their distinctive mewing call has earned them the name ‘bwncath’ in Welsh, which translates as cat bird.

Golden eagle and buzzard
This photo shows just how much bigger a golden eagle (on the left) is than a buzzard

From Skies to Soil

The buzzard is one of our most versatile raptors when it comes to diet. They will actively hunt small mammals such as voles, mice and rabbits, as well as birds such as pigeons. They locate larger prey by using their keen eyesight as they soar at height over fields, moorland or scrub, especially on warmer days with plenty of thermal updrafts. This method of finding prey is extremely energy efficient as they utilise the updrafts rather than active flapping. Soaring also helps them locate carrion such as roadkill, another common food source. Buzzards look for smaller prey, including the occasional frog or lizard, from fenceposts or similar perches. They also spend a surprising amount of time on the ground, though, looking for earthworms. These are an important part of their diet, particularly in winter.

Common buzzard
Buzzards spend a surprising amount of time on the ground, often looking for worms

This versatility means that buzzards turn up in all sorts of habitats. They are commonest at the woodland edge, though. Here they can combine looking for food in more open environments with access to secure breeding habitat. They are not as expert at manoeuvring through dense woodland as sparrowhawks so tend not to breed or hunt within denser woodland, however. Buzzards can also be seen soaring over farmland, moorland, saltmarsh and even suburban parks. Most UK birds stay around their territory all year, although a few carry out short migrations if food is scarce. Pairs mate for life and many use the same nest each year, adding to it when it needs repairing. Winter is a good time to spot the huge stick constructions while the trees are bare. Buzzards typically have two to three chicks each year.

Common buzzard
Buzzards are birds of the woodland edge

A Century of Decline

Although never fully extinct in the UK, the buzzard was once persecuted indiscriminately to the point where they disappeared from large parts of their former range. Gamekeepers in particular killed large numbers, along with a range of other raptors. This was because they wrongly saw them as a threat to gamebird populations. Farmers, meanwhile, mistakenly thought that they hunted lambs. The onslaught meant that by the middle of the 19th century, buzzards only survived in the north and west of the UK. By the 1920s, things began to change in the buzzard’s favour. Some of this was accidental. Not only did many estates lose a large proportion of their gamekeepers in the trenches of the First World War, but social changes following the war led to many estates being sold off or even demolished. This inadvertently led to less people carrying out persecution.

Common buzzard
Buzzards were one of many raptors persecuted relentlessly in the 19th century

There was also a change in attitudes with more awareness of the need to protect wildlife in general. A double whammy of disasters, though, hit these tentative recoveries as the century progressed. As apex predators, buzzards were particularly vulnerable to the growing build-up of dangerous chemicals such as DDT in the food chain. This concentration of toxins and the way it affects predators’ breeding success was highlighted in 1962 by scientist Rachel Carson in her ground-breaking book Silent Spring. The arrival of the rabbit virus myxomatosis in the UK in 1953 likewise had a devastating effect. As it killed an estimated 99% of rabbits here, it removed an important food source for a still vulnerable buzzard population.

rabbit
Buzzards lost an important food source when myxomatosis hit the rabbit population

Back from the Brink?

Now, though, chemical bans, the end of the most serious waves of myxomatosis and much better legal protections mean that buzzards have returned to every county in the UK. Another factor in their resurgence is the abundance of roadkill available to them as millions of gamebirds (principally pheasants and red-legged partridges) are released into the countryside each year, many of which die on our roads. The buzzard’s return is particularly noticeable in the east of the country, a region it had been absent from for some decades before the last 20 to 30 years. There are now an estimated 300, 000 individuals in the UK, with around 67,000 breeding pairs. Within the last decade they have become the commonest raptor species in the UK, overtaking the previous title holder, the kestrel. While some of this is down to the kestrel’s worrying decline, the growth in the buzzard population is undeniable.

Buzzard in flight
Soaring buzzards are now a common sight across the UK

While this is cause for celebration, however, the future is not necessarily secure. Gamekeepers and farmers still persecute buzzards, along with other raptor species. Numerous cases are reported every year. In 2012, the UK Government was also close to going ahead with a plan to trap buzzards and destroy their nests to help the gamebird industry before a public outcry persuaded them otherwise. That the buzzard’s recovery is in part due to the sheer numbers of gamebirds released to die on our roads, while the self-same releasers complain about the rise in buzzard numbers, is more than a little frustrating.

Buzzard
A particularly dark buzzard

Another threat is a new virus in our rabbit population. Rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus type 2 (RHDV2) arrived here around a decade ago. There are fears it could kill as many rabbits as myxomatosis did in the 1950s. Also worrying is the fact that the UK’s earthworm population has declined by between 33 and 41% over the last 25 years. Both rabbits and worms are vital components of the buzzard’s diet. In addition, there is a whole new suite of ‘forever chemicals’ building up in the environment.

Beautiful Buteos

Buzzards are one of a number of raptor species in the UK that have benefitted from protective legislation and a change in (most) people’s attitudes. Where once you would have to travel to the western or northern extremes of the country to see them, they can now be spotted in every portion of the UK. Seeing, and hearing, a soaring pair as spring begins to take hold is a wonderful experience. That it is now so much more common is a joy. But we cannot be complacent. Continued persecution, forever chemicals in the environment and threats to the buzzard’s food sources could halt or reverse the gains this beautiful raptor has made in the last few decades. Let’s hope that the cat bird continues to hold its own against these threats.

Buzzard
Hopefully buzzards can survive the continued threats they face

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