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AG Maasai Mara Kenya

5 things I learnt about ringing black sparrowhawks

Written by: Callum Evans

For the past three years I have been observing a pair of black sparrowhawks that nest just down the road from my family’s house in Tokai.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited by the Black Sparrowhawk Project to assist them in ringing three new chicks. Strangely, in the days leading up to the ringing, I had my best sparrowhawk sightings to date, including seeing chicks in a nest and their mother bringing them food. I was even able to watch the mother bring down a feral pigeon right in front of me.

black sparrow hawks

©Callum Evans

The ringing itself was an incredibly enriching experience. I was able to witness new aspects of sparrowhawk behaviour, learn about their adaptations, and get an insight into what it takes for scientists to gain an understanding of these birds so that we can ensure their protection. Best of all, I was finally able to see the chicks up close after spending weeks barely glimpsing them in the nest.

Here are five things I learned about what is required to ring these magnificent birds.

1.      Tree climbing

There are some serious risks involved in this part of the operation. At the start of each ringing, Mark Cowen had to climb up the tree with his climbing gear to reach the nest, photograph the chicks in the nest, put them in bags and lower them down to the other researchers on the ground. All the while, both parents repeatedly and relentlessly dive-bombed him. Sometimes the female would strike his helmet, resulting in a loud crack. The bombardment eventually got so bad that at one point Mark had to cover his helmet with a thick blanket for additional protection.

black sparrow hawks

©Mark Cowen

black sparrow hawk project

©Margaret Macvier

black sparrow hawk project

©Margaret Macvier

2.      Taking blood samples

Dr. Petra Sumasgutner had to take blood samples from each of the three chicks. This is an essential element of the research because it allows her to look at the cell count of the birds, including blood cell count, and to determine whether or not the birds had any internal parasites or genetic problems. The institute has done a great deal of work in helping to increase our understanding about this population of black sparrowhawks.

black sparrow hawks

©Callum Evans

3.      The ringing

After the chicks had been weighed, each chick was fitted with three rings. One leg bears two of the rings and the other only one. A SAFRING, with a different number for each chick, is the primary ring fitted onto one of the chick’s legs along with a green and a blue ring. Each chick has a different ring combination so that they can be accurately identified in the future. These rings are an important tool in determining the range of individual sparrowhawks here, as well as population size.

black sparrow hawk project

©Ann Koeslag

black sparrow hawk project

©Callum Evans

4.      Anatomy check

All three of the chicks are examined after the operations have been completed to determine what stage of growth they’re at, how developed their feathers are and whether or not they are displaying traces of hunger (which are side-effects from malnutrition that can lead to problems with the chicks’ development that could affect them in later life). Additionally, the chicks’ wings and facial features were photographed. It was amazing to be able to look at the features of these amazing birds from such close quarters. It really gave me a completely new perspective.

black sparrow hawks

©Callum Evans

5.      Getting up close and personal

I learned a lot of new things about black sparrowhawks while observing the chicks up close and watching the parents. Both the male and the female sparrowhawks had different calls to one another, which meant they could be accurately identified even when they were perched among thick branches. The legs and talons of the chicks were adapted for a life of specialising in hunting, and their eyes, which were light brown, would turn bright red when they were adult. I could also see the bird’s specialised trachea and watch as their claws reflexively grabbed at everything they saw.

black sparrow hawks

©Callum Evans

Currently, all three chicks are doing well. They’ve lost all of their white fluffy feathers and are now no longer in the nest but perched in the branches of the nest tree with their parents. It won’t be long before they start hunting for themselves and leave their parents’ territory to start their own families.

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