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The subject of predators is always a touchy one. Many people don’t like to see animals being killed by others, especially when it isn’t a quick, clean kill. However, the fact of life is that there are species born to be predators and species born to be their prey. And pigeons and doves are definitely a prey species.

Witnessing the attack, or aftermath of an attack, of a predator on a pigeon is traumatic, especially if it is one of your own. No one wants to lose their pigeon in such a horrific manner. When I worked at a wildlife rescue centre I saw the results of such attacks, and thankfully we were sometimes able to mend and rehabilitate the victims. But each case was heartbreaking and people would often say to me how cruel predators are. I actually disagree. I don’t see animals as being cruel to one another when they are hunting for food. They do what they have to do. Doesn’t mean I like to see it happen (or the results of an attack), but I don’t hate predator species.

There are many species that predate on pigeons and doves. Birds of prey, such as peregrine falcons and sparrowhawks, are the main ones, however, domestic cats, foxes, rats, corvids, snakes and dogs can all do their fair share of harm. If you have an aviary that isn’t predator-proof, then you only have yourself to blame if a predator gets in. It is the responsibility of the animal carer to ensure the safety of their animals. So please don’t blame the fox when it breaks into a flimsy chicken wire cage and kills all your chickens or pigeons. By containing birds in a small enclosed space you’re essentially taunting the predators with what they must view as a box full of goodies. Of course they are going to attempt to eat those goodies. Predator proof your aviary!!

Of course, many will state that most domestic cats don’t kill to eat anymore and therefore are cruel, however, cats are still a predator species. They may not have the need to kill for food, but most cats definitely have the urge to hunt. It is in their DNA. Simply domesticating a species doesn’t necessarily change that. However, for some reason cats often get off lightly when they kill birds. Is it because so many people love cats and have them as pets? Sparrowhawks, on the other hand, are usually the target of hatred, particularly here in the UK and certainly amongst the pigeon racing clubs.

Last week I watched in horror as a sparrowhawk chased a feral pigeon in the air, catch it then drop to the ground right in front of me! I was in my car, driving slowly down my street, so when this happened I stopped. The sparrowhawk and I stared at each other for a second. Before I could get out of my car the sparrowhawk released the pigeon, who flew away quickly. He didn’t look injured but I knew he would have some painful puncture wounds on his body from the hawk’s claws (I’ve held sparrowhawks before and had one sink its claws into my hand so I know from experience how painful it is), and it upset me that I couldn’t help the pigeon further. I have to hope the wounds heal quickly. The sparrowhawk flew away too, most likely to hunt another bird.

Now, I’ve never actually seen the chase and capture before so it was a shock to witness it (both birds flew incredibly quickly). There was no way I was going to allow the hawk to rip open a pigeon right in front of me. I know that it has to eat but I don’t want to see it happen. I will always stop it from happening if I can – and I’ve interrupted a few sparrowhawks from killing pigeons and doves in the past (there was one that visited the rescue centre every now and then to have a go at the local birds) – but it doesn’t make me hate sparrowhawks. Even after everything I’ve seen from injured birds, I still don’t dislike birds of prey. They are beautiful, skillful and amazing birds. They are built for speed and agility. And do you know what? Pigeons are also built for speed. Pigeons are amazing flyers and can escape from the chase of a sparrowhawk. In fact, predators usually have to hunt many times a day in order to get just one kill. Most of their prey escape, therefore predators have to try harder.

Of course, certain domesticated pigeons, e.g. fancy pigeons, do not stand a chance against predators, what with their unusual feathers or body shape. Erecting a pretty white dovecote with pretty white fantail doves in the garden is simply asking for trouble. Fantails are not good flyers and will be easily killed by most predators.

Free flying pigeons are also going to be targets of predators. Hand-reared tame pigeons are more vulnerable because many lack an awareness of the threat of predators (especially if they have been hand-reared with dogs and cats). So if you let your pigeon fly freely then you have to accept the fact that a bird of prey may one day attack. It will be up to you to decide whether the risk is minimal compared to the gains and joys of freedom and make the choice that you feel comfortable with. My choice is easier to make since both my pigeons cannot fly properly anyway, so they stay indoors and any time outside is heavily supervised.

I have hand-reared, cared for and rehabilitated many bird and mammal species at the wildlife rescue centre, both predator and prey species. I have fallen in love with the warning clicks of a baby owl, the adorable look of a baby magpie, the insistent squeaks of a baby pigeon, as well as the stubborn, defensive glares of a sparrowhawk chick. Ultimately, all baby species are adorable so for me it was inevitable to fall in love with them. :)

A few photos of sparrowhawks cared for at the wildlife rescue centre I worked at. They have piercing stares, even the juvenile one!

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Juvenile sparrowhawk

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Adult sparrowhawk

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Adult sparrowhawk