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Update from the Pensthorpe kestrel and sparrowhawk nests

Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 10:47 UK time, Friday, 2 July 2010

At the end of Springwatch we promised we'd keep following our kestrel and sparrowhawk families and update you on their progress. The good news from the kestrel nest is that dad has continued to be an excellent provider. All the chicks now look very ready to fledge. Not so good news from the sparrowhawk nest though...

Our plucky Pensthorpe kestrels
At the end of Springwatch 2010 our Pensthorpe kestrel family had us all worried after the sad news that the mother kestrel had been killed by a lorry. But since this tragic affair the kestrel family have gone from strength to strength.


The kestrels from earlier days

Not only did the kestrel chicks start to take more of an active role in feeding themselves by picking at the food in their nest box, but their father had been doing a sterling job of providing for them on his own.

Kestrel males have to be good hunters as they provide all the food for the female and the chicks during the brooding period. Female parents usually only hunt as the brood get bigger and will usually hunt in areas nearby. It looks like our male is doing his job well but good weather will definitely have helped... males would sometimes take food to cache for the female to pick up and then break up for the chicks.

So it's all positivity and progress with our kestrel family as the good weather holds out and the nestlings are all looking healthy . We expect that they'll be fledging in the next few days and one chick in particular has been doing a lot of stretching and preening to the point of seemingly annoying its siblings.

The mystery of the Pensthorpe sparrowhawk nest
Expert Dave Culley reports that it's been a bad year for sparrowhawks up and down the country. One reason could be that the harsh winter meant that females weren't able to put on enough weight to properly brood the eggs and chicks.


The sparrowhawk female when all was well

Sadly it looks like our sparrowhawk family have contributed to these statistics...

When the series finished all five chicks were doing well and the one unhatched egg was still there. The male was also making appearances and bringing food to the nest.

But when Jo, one of our minicams team, went back to Pensthorpe last weekend to investigate more, things had changed. On the first day he saw only one chick. There was no evidence of any of the other chicks or the egg. Jo saw Mum and also saw the chick poo, both of which suggested the chick was being fed.

On Sunday when Jo returned at 12.30pm after filming the kestrels, the nest was completely empty and there was no sign of the female.

Ed, the warden at Pensthorpe, said he saw a sparrowhawk flying towards the woods where the nest was on Sunday morning. It was carrying food, so possibly it was our female. So does this mean the chick was still alive before Jo visited? Possibly, but we can't be sure.

So what happened?
The short answer is that we just don't know. But our experts have put forward some theories. Dave Culley's best guess is that magpies and jays are the culprits. They go to nests in gangs of three to four. Working as a team, they have two methods of attack: kill all the chicks in one go and take a few away at a time, or kill a couple and take them away and then come back and do the same until they're all gone. Dave has seen 7-12 day-old chicks taken like this.

Mike Powles, Pensthorpe's wildlife expert, thought it could be a number of reasons but believed that tawny owl predation was most likely in this instance. For Chris Packham, the likely culprit was another raptor. Both buzzards and goshawks are know to take pre-fledglings from nests, he said.

A sad end for our sparrowhawks but unfortunately when you are telling real stories in real time a happy ending can never be guaranteed.

Jo took some footage of both the nests, which we'll post here just as soon as we can.


  • Comment number 1.

    Great to hear the good news on the kestrels progress given that they lost their mother so early on, sadder news though about the fate of the sparrowhawk chicks, was hoping for a successful outcome, but alas I guess that's the way nature works sometimes.

  • Comment number 2.

    Thanks for the update Jeremy, great news about the kestrel nestlings. Mr Kestrel surely has to be the star of this year's Springwatch for all his hard work getting the little ones to the fledging stage. And a sheer miracle that the good old British weather has been so glorious over the last couple of weeks to help him out!

    Not so good about the sparrowhawks of course. Sad news... just goes to show that nature doesn't always have a happy ending.

  • Comment number 3.

    I had a fledgling Kestrel for a year. Lovely bird. Sorry, can't say the same about the S'hawk. There are just too many of them. I have almost no tits or finches thanks to them. I'm just glad my Greater Woodpeckpeckers have bested them...

  • Comment number 4.

    Thanks for keeping us up to date. Really pleased the Kestrels are doing so well but what very sad news about the Sparrowhawks. It would have been so lovely if they had been doing well too.
    The male Kestrel does has done a really good job of being a single Dad, he should get an award!

  • Comment number 5.

    The update is very useful. It was sad to hear about the Sparrowhawks failure.

    However, what I find fascinating about the tragic death of the female Kestrel and the feeding of the chicks by the male is something that wasn't mentioned in Chris' otherwise excellent points.

    The fascinating point this interesting observation throws up is - How did the male Kestrel know that he needed to increase his feeding to compensate for the lost female? The graphs Chris showed clearly appeared to indicate that the male Kestrel compensated for the loss of the female by feeding the chicks more. It didn't seem to be just giving the voles it would normally give to the female to the chicks, it seemed to have increased its overall visits. The question is how did it know how and when to do this?

    This is a great example of what I would call "natural intelligence" in action. I would describe "natural intelligence" as the ability to react to a particular set of circumstances, with an appropriate response or strategy. I don't think that conventional animal behaviour theory or ethology adequately deal with this. I am not suggesting that the male Kestrel consciously reflected on and reasoned that as the female was dead or missing that it would have to feed the chicks more itself. However, what I am suggesting is that animal minds have the ability to produce appropriate behavioural responses without the conscious reasoning processes that current animal behavioural theories consider necessary for this type of response. Conventionally it is assumed that only humans and some other intelligent animals such as Chimpanzees have this "insight learning". However, I believe that this and lots of other examples I have seen, indicate that there is some form of "insight" into a situation, and that the animal respons appropriately. Again by "insight" I don't mean a conscious thought, and I simply means that somehow an animal can evaluate a situation and then act appropriately for that set of circumstances. I am not making any suggestions as to how this is achieved, I am simply noting that it happens.

    It is very easy just to explain these things away as innate patterns of behaviour developed during an animals evolutionary history. So for instance you could just say that evolution has selected for traits in male Kestrels that utilise this behaviour, because it is far more likely that their genes will be passed forward - by utilising an appropriate strategy that enables this. However, it is the subtle way that animals respond appropriately that fascinates me. This male Kestrel appears to have immediately changed its behaviour and strategy when the female went missing.

    I would love to hear an explanation using conventional animal behavioural models as to how the male Kestrel knew how to act appropriately to these unfortunate circumstances.

  • Comment number 6.

    Some very interesting thoughts theSteB. Although I don't have an answer as to how the male 'understood' it needs to provide more food, I wonder what triggers it. Does the male recognise that the female has not been present and so 'steps in' to provide more food itself or perhaps the male responds to the chicks who perhaps are displaying more hunger or even distressed type behaviours? Perhaps the young chicks are calling more frequently because they are hungry, which is what the male picks up on and responds to? I often wonder what animals 'think' and find the behavioural aspect fascinating. hmmm interesting to see what others think

  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks Jeremy for the updates,sad news about the Sparrowhawks,A pair have been visiting my garden regularly,I do hope they are succesful,and aren't added to the failure statistics,I don't feel so bad now when I see them targeting my feeders.
    Great news about the Kestrels,the male has done an amazing job of raising the chicks.

  • Comment number 8.

    Thanks for this update Jeremy. Shame about the sparrowhawks. My local pair must be doing well though judging by the two or three birds (greenfinches mostly) the male is taking from my garden every day! Its shame for the greenfinches though as they are struggling too but they seem to be easy prey for the hawks compared to wily sparrows and goldfinches.

    Good news on the Kestrels though!

    An interesting point Steb and one that was also shown very clearly two weeks ago now at the SWT Loch of the Lowes reserve up here in Scotland. The female bird became suddenly ill and the male after only a cursory glance at the female seemed to know what he had to do and almost immediately started to feed the chicks himself - normally exclusively the job of the female in ospreys. He kept up this catching fish and feeding for 3 days and by then the female had recovered enough to resume her tasks herself and he went back to his duties of catching the fish and leaving them for her.

    Birds do seem to have a very intelligent mind and I'm sure, as with the Pensthorpe Kestrels that the male osprey has saved these chicks lives.

  • Comment number 9.

    Sod Peter Andre as dad of the year what about Mr Kestrel ! So pleased the chicks have made it.

    Real shame about the sparrowhawks :(

  • Comment number 10.

    what about the avocets, are they doing alright???

  • Comment number 11.

    We have a pair of kestrels with 4 chicks nesting in our unloading canopy at work here in the north east, totally unfazed by the wagons and forklifts, chicks have started to fledge but are still close to the nest and seem very happy to be watched by our staff quite close up.

  • Comment number 12.

    You can find out about the progress of the other birds on Pensthorpe's blog: http://www.pensthorpe.com/wildlife/wardens-blog.htm


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