Quite a crowd had gathered by the time I arrived and at first it was difficult to see the attraction. But as the bodies parted, I saw him, just a few feet away on the other side of the railings in the grounds of Edinburgh's Cathedral of St Mary. 'Oh!' I exclaimed. 'A sparrowhawk, how exciting!' And there he was, a male bird with striking grey and pink barred plumage, glaring defiantly back at us. Beneath his talons, stunned but still living, was a stricken feral pigeon. In a characteristic pose he made a canopy with his wings, concealing his prize. The more squeamish members of the crowd made shooing noises. One woman pleaded 'can't you make it stop?' Another asked 'why doesn't it fly away?' Male sparrowhawks are not large birds, sometimes only half the weight of their mate. The pigeon was simply too heavy to lift, too tasty to leave. It was a showdown.
This dramatic photograph is not mine. It was taken by Jane Barton of the Hampshire Ornithological Society. I hope she will not object to me reproducing it here as it captures closely the scene I witnessed.
In the general gloom of declining bird populations the urban sparrowhawk has been something of a success story. The Edinburgh Hawkwatch project, which monitors local sightings of the birds, estimates that 30 or more pairs may breed within the confines of the city, a remarkable recovery from the former indiscriminate persecution suffered by all our birds of prey. Sparrowhawks nest high in trees and Edinburgh is well endowed with inner city woodland. Prime sites are some of the older, less manicured cemeteries. Other bird species do well too in the dense cover of the graveyards and that's good news for sparrowhawks which diet almost exclusively on small birds.
My favourite corners of Edinburgh's cemeteries will remain my secret and they give the appearance of being largely forgotten. They are certainly not the parts frequented by tourists in search of famous graves. In fact I doubt they receive many visitors at all. I encounter occasional dog walkers but that's about it. I find this rather surprising given the general appeal of all things gothic. Headstones bearing all manner of symbols and memento mori emerge like crooked peg teeth from a sea of undergrowth and the crumbling, ivied mausoleums are picturesque in the true aesthetic meaning of the word. They are best in dappled sunlight or when a breeze shakes big drops of rain from the broad-leaved canopy after a downpour.
At each end of the day in particular the cemeteries are busy with birds. Blackbirds and dunnocks rummage in the leaf litter, song thrushes entertain from high perches and wrens trill or tick angrily from crevices in the masonry. In winter flocks of redwings comb the grass, seeming to move as one as they search for worms in the iron ground, and fieldfares strip the shrubs of berries. I have heard laughing woodpeckers and, on lucky days, the shrieking calls of sparrowhawks.
I know of at least one cemetery nest site near the centre of the city and it can be a noisy place in May and June. The nest itself is well hidden but the birds betray their presence with their calling. Roles at the nest are clearly defined and account for the pair's difference in size. Exclusively the female incubates and watches over the vulnerable newborn chicks while the male hunts. His returns to the nest are greeted by volleys of banshee catcalls that sound eerie among the surrounding gravestones. It may be just my imagination but other birds seem to grow quiet and watchful when the male is present, although I have never witnessed him hunting so close to the nest.
In common with all raptors, the predatory habits of the sparrowhawk and its effects are widely and sometimes wilfully misunderstood. There is aboslutely no evidence that the return of the birds to our urban spaces has contributed to declining songbird numbers. Mortality rates among small birds are very high anyway. The hawk, a highly territorial bird, is an integral part of the population equilibrium, and simply wouldn't stay to breed if there was not an adequate food supply. Nevertheless, sparrowhawk nest sites remain vulnerable to persecution, which is why I am not telling where mine is.