Molly McGinnis

April, 2005 issue of Signals from TARSUS

Buzzard (WH)
Common Buzzard (Buteo Buteo)
Family: Accipitridae        Order: Falconiformes

"Two birds, far-away brown specks, were floating round the summits of the crags."

"Buzzards," said Peggy. "Just calling to each other. There are nearly always some of them up there round the crags."

"Do you think they've got a nest up there? Let's just try to see it... "

The "specks" (above) in these few pages of Winter Holiday are all we see of buzzards, but look what happens. "Do you think they've got a nest up there?..." "Come on," said Roger. "It's our turn to explore. Lucky I thought of the rope." And then, Dick's "Just let me get my telescope on it ...It's not a nest. It's a sheep." And then the rescue, scientifically planned and courageously carried out by Dick, with a little help from the buzzards at a bad moment: "Dick looked down... He felt suddenly a little sick. He looked up at the further crags, where the buzzards were still wheeling..." It was Mr. Dixon's sheep, from the farm where the D's are staying. Mr. Dixon says "It's not many lads would go along that ledge" and to show his gratitude and admiration builds the D's a sledge, and Dick and Dorothea's sail to the North Pole brings the book to a smashing finish. You could say that the last section of Winter Holiday, the part where you can't put the book down, is the plot the buzzards built.

But why is Dick so excited about seeing buzzards? They're just vultures, aren't they? Can't anyone can see vultures anywhere?

Not exactly. To Americans a "buzzard" is an American Vulture, but that name has drifted from its proper place. The buzzards we glimpse in Ransome's books are the "Common Buzzard, Buteo buteo, and are one of a group of "Buzzard Hawks" or "Buteo Hawks," broadwinged soaring hawks that take prey from the ground (as opposed to the Falcons, which snatch birds from the air as they fly). The "Common Buzzard" was not so very common when Ransome was writing, nesting and usually seen only around high rocky cliffs in a few areas of the North. Where they were found at all they were "common" enough: it is often hard to understand that a rare bird or plant may be quite common in the scattered patches where there are some left. Thus Peggy says "Just calling to each other. There are nearly always some of them up there," but the buzzard that was a common sight to the Amazons was a rare species to Dick and in much of England, though Buteo buteo was then, and is still, resident and common over all of Eurasia, eastward into Asia and south into North Africa.

If we could magnify one of the tiny specks in the book in real life, we would see a bird with broad wings and tail, in shape very like our most common and widespread hawk, the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). But in England the Common Buzzard is colored a uniform dark-barred gray and our Red-tail has brick-red upper tail feathers and lots of contrast between its dark upper body and light ("countershaded") breast and belly. In other parts of its range, the Common Buzzard is very variable in body color and the some look very much like a Red-tail without a red tail. Perhaps long ago a few common buzzards were blown from the bulge of Africa to the shores of America, to become – if it was enough millions of years ago – ancestors of our Red-tail and perhaps of most of our 13 buteo hawks. Dick would be a happy raptor-watcher in North America. He might confuse our Turkey Vultures with buteo hawks at first, for the Turkey Vultures circle in small groups and so does the Common Buzzard. Everyone hopes to see a Golden Eagle – there are Goldens in Scotland but not in England – and Red-tails, Turkey Vulture, and Common Buzzard are all wishfully mistaken for Golden Eagles. In Scotland this happens so much that Scots sometimes call the Common Buzzard the "Tourist Eagle!"

England's buzzard populations have had many ups and downs over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, falconry was the most important sport of the nobility and training a falcon to take a bustard (a turkey-sized crane relative, extinct in England since about 1830) was the pride of the sport. Buzzards aren't adapted by nature for this kind of hunting and were despised as "untrainable" – so much so that "buzzard" became a slang word for a useless person. They were regarded as competitors to sportsmen (and probably as menaces to domestic poultry) and persecuted. Buzzard persecution became more intense when guns replaced falcons and the pride of the rich sportsman was to have shot the largest possible "bag" of pheasant, grouse, or other game birds. Game birds were intensively managed – we would now call them "farmed," perhaps – on the great estates and buzzards were removed by the gamekeepers and as guns became common they could be killed as "vermin" by anyone with a gun. Buzzards do take an occasional unwary game bird, but their preferred prey animals are pest species, especially rabbits, rodents, snakes and lizards. Widespread guns were only one effect of the Industrial Age – more and more plowing and building transformed meadows and marshes to towns and increasingly barren croplands. This habitat loss and fragmentation affected all raptors, including buzzards, and populations continued to drop.

The 20th century brought new tragedy and new hope to birds of prey. In England, many raptors became extinct on the island in the first two decades of the century, done in by the double impact of intensive agriculture and more and more guns in the hands of more and more people. At the time Ransome was writing, there were probably only about 10,000 buzzards in England, and things got much worse, and then better, within his lifetime. Even as the last of the Swallows and Amazons books were being written, soon after the end of the 2nd World War in Europe, a French scientist and landowner (Dr. Armand delille) introduced a South American rabbit virus, myxomatosis, onto his estates, and the wonderfully effective and seemingly safe new insecticide DDT began to blanket the world. In 1953 the egg-thinning effects began to create a worldwide disaster for raptors and in October of that year myxomatosis reached England. Eighteen months later, almost all the rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in Britain were dead. The near-disappearance of its main food source was a worse disaster for the buzzard than for the rabbit. The buzzards were nearly starved out of existence before the last few hundred changed their food habits and began scavenging on carrion (dead animals), while the rabbits began to recover rather quickly as the few survivors began to do what rabbits do best – reproduce (like rabbits, Roger would surely say) and a more myxomatosis-resistant population developed.
Perhaps the triple-whammy "Silent Spring" that made several British raptors extinct in England and reduced others to a very few individuals won't prove to have been such a bad thing in the end. Today a much more wildlife-conscious and especially raptor-conscious public showers raptors with attention and support. They are protected from many human threats including shooting, land is conserved for them, and many species, including some that were wiped out long before the disaster years, are being reintroduced. There are thirty to sixty times as many buzzards now as there were in Winter Holiday times, at least 30,000 and maybe 60,00 of them, and they are moving into areas where they haven't nested for hundreds of years. Dick wouldn't have to go far to see a buzzard today, but they still haven't reached the eastern areas where Dick and Dorothea lived when not adventuring with Swallows or Amazons.

In the Americas, the Red-tailed Hawk was never endangered and almost any American, Mexican or Canadian can easily see a bird much like the Common Buzzards the Polar Expedition saw. The Red-tail was, and often still is, despite its protected status, shot without thought, but its range is so great (and much of it still has few people compared to most of Britain) that its population has never been much affected. Egg-thinning affected Red-tail populations less than those of some other raptors, and it has adapted very well to living with humans. When dense housing and acres of paving for shopping centers take over agricultural and ranchland, more reclusive ("shy") raptors disappear, but Red-tails find a city high-rise roof or a large tree on a busy street a perfectly satisfactory nest spot and easily change their menus from meadow mice and gopher snakes to city pigeons and rats. Some of our large cities' Red-tails are famous (New York City's Pale Male made headlines all over the country) and many can be watched on their WebCams. Perhaps in the future large English cities like York and Manchester will have their own resident buzzards. English buzzards nest in trees in their new lowland habitats, and recently a nest was discovered right on the ground. Moving into cities as cities take over their habitat seems a quite possible next step for British buzzards!

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