Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton, and guest contributor Jim Stevenson, introduce the next in this series of informative articles.
Latin name: Buteo buteo
A pair of common buzzards circling and “mewing” high over the Cambridgeshire countryside is a very welcome and familiar sight to many local naturalists these days, but this was not always the case.
This slow flying, broad-winged raptor has had a somewhat controversial relationship with man, for in Victorian times it seemed that we were set on getting rid of every bird of prey in Britain. Under instructions from landowners, gamekeepers killed any bird with a hooked beak and claws.
Clearly there was not room for both buzzards and the gamekeepers, and by 1900 this raptor only bred in the South West, the New Forest and the Lake District, with larger populations in Wales and western Scotland.
Only after the Second World War and the passing of the Protection of Birds Act in 1954, did the buzzard population start to expand.
When did you first see a buzzard? Maybe on a European holiday? They can be found on the Atlantic islands, in Iberia and France, across Europe, Russia, Asia Minor to Japan, but not in Iceland, the Faroes or Shetland. Northern breeding birds move south in the winter, and I have a vivid memory of birdwatching on the Dutch Polders and counting up to 100 birds in a day. Up to 15,000 buzzards overwinter in the Netherlands, mainly from Central Europe and Scandinavia.
Locally, the status of the buzzard has changed considerably over the years. Tebbutt in his “Birds of Huntingdonshire” (1967) listed the buzzard as a rare vagrant, whilst Clark (1996) said that they were noted in each month of the year, but gave no breeding pairs.
One of the problems of raptor identification is the wide range of different plumages in each species, and the common buzzard can appear almost white through to chocolate brown. This can create real issues when looking at raptors in continental Europe, with so many different species to choose from! In France it is called Buse Variable for obvious reasons!
With the easterly expansion of the buzzard’s breeding range, I see only one problem – a possible outbreak of myxomatosis, which leads to a rapid decline in our rabbit population. They certainly seem much rarer these days locally. Will this be an issue for buzzards which have rabbit as a main food prey?
The preferred habitat in England is very similar to that of the red kite, and these two species can often be seen together. Good areas locally to see both species include the Great Fen, the road from St Neots to Kimbolton and the river walk on the reserve where, in autumn, family groups have been seen.
So, this is a success story. Buzzards, unlike kites, did not need reintroduction programmes. If they are not illegally killed by man, they will thrive. In fact, in my lifetime, they have gone from rare vagrants in many areas to Britain’s commonest breeding raptor with over 40,000 breeding pairs – how good is that!?
So, you need not travel far to expect to see a buzzard these days. Just look out of your window – you might actually see one today!
Recommended reading – “The Buzzard” Colin R Tubbs (1974) David E Charles – An easy to read book for the non-specialist market