November 02, 2014

A near miss

Sunday: I woke early, made a cup of tea and curled up on the sofa in my dressing gown to read The Goldfinch for an hour. I had raised one of the blinds, but not both, so that I remained out of the sightline of the sparrows, great tits and robins feeding on our seed feeder, leaving them to carry on undisturbed.

Except they had a lot more to worry about than me. I'm still a long way from being a proper birder, but I've grown attuned enough over the last few years to hear when something's wrong – so when the usual background cheeps erupted into screeches and clamour I immediately looked up from my book towards the section of the garden I could see. There, sitting not eight feet away from me on our garden table, was a beautiful male sparrowhawk: slate-grey back, barred chest and furious orange eyes.

There was no time to do anything but stand up and gape, my mind fitting together the extraordinary, vivid pieces of him like a puzzle, incredulously and too slow. There was certainly no time to take a picture to put on this blog; I didn't even manage to form the word 'sparrowhawk' before he was on the garden fence, and then away. He must have cannoned down into the sparrows mobbing the feeder, feathery bodies exploding away like shrapnel; a couple had shot into the dense cover of our thorny berberis, which as I stared I saw was still shaking with them.

Thanks to the ban on organochlorine pesticides (a ban driven by public outrage, it's worth noting) sparrowhawks are thankfully not rare any more, and it's not the first time we've had one in our South London garden. Every time, though, it's breathtaking. Helen Macdonald gets it just right, in her brilliant memoir H Is For Hawk: 'Maybe you've glanced out of the window and seen there, on the lawn, a bloody great hawk murdering a pigeon, or a blackbird, or a magpie, and it looks the hugest, most impressive piece of wildness you've ever seen, like someone's tipped a snow leopard into your kitchen and you find it eating the cat.'

There are people who believe it's recovering sparrowhawk numbers that are responsible for the recent steep decline in urban sparrow populations; personally, and in common with the RSPB and BTO, I think it very unlikely. We treasure the small group of sparrows that visit our garden, but worry far more about the depredations of the dozen or so local cats. To think that scruffy Streatham can support a population of these beautiful, impressive raptors makes me feel good about the possibility of living side-by-side, in our cities, with wildlife: not just the cute varieties but the whole glorious and complex assemblage, the living, dying panoply of nature.