Interview with Peter Dare about the ecology and conservation of the Common Buzzard

Date of the interview: 30 August 2015

In this interview author and researcher Peter Dare talks about the ecology of the Common Buzzard, his research and his fantastic new book "The Life of Buzzards".

Markus Jais: How long have you been studying Common Buzzards?
Peter Dare: 65 years! Since I was a schoolboy!

Dartmoor, hilly sheep farms 300m above sea level


Dartmoor, hilly sheep farms 300m above sea levelRhinechis scalaris
© Peter Dare

Markus Jais: What are the main challenges studying Buzzards? What tips do you have for other researchers or birders who want to study Buzzards in detail?
Peter Dare: The same challenges as for other raptors. Depends on personal interests, time and resources available plus (most important) access to sites on private lands. Buzzards can be very elusive as often in or close to tree cover for much of year.
Popular study topics are:

  • Flight/aerial displays/vocal & social behaviour – no problems (only time & weather!).
  • Breeding biology – finding and accessing nests (scope for using nest cameras).
  • Predation/food studies – (i) hunting birds observations (time consuming); (ii) pellet material – difficult to find (analyses need microscope etc.); (iii) prey at nests (access problems – use of cameras?).
  • Movement/dispersal/migration - colour banding/ wing tags – productive new field of study – requires access to young in nests.

Markus Jais: What is the typical habitat for Buzzards in the UK?
Peter Dare: Two types:

  • (a) lowland mosaics of mixed farmland, woods, scrub and wet areas (as in Germany).
  • (b) upland landscapes of open grass/heather (Erica) moors (sheep farming country) and/or mountains, both with scattered small woods or groups of trees.

Markus Jais: What are the preferred nesting trees for Buzzards?
Peter Dare: Depends on availability/habitat.; 6 most frequent are - Conifers – Pinus sylvestris, Larix spp., Picea sitchensis Deciduous – Quercus spp., Fagus sylvaticus, Betula spp.

Markus Jais: What is the most important prey of the Buzzard in the UK?
Peter Dare: Rabbit (especially for high breeding success) + Microtus agrestis voles, other rodents, Frogs Rana temporaria (in spring). Locally, for feeding young, large birds – newly fledged corvids (Pica pica, Corvus corone) and Wood Pigeons (Columbus palumbus). In winter – sheep carrion in hills; Earthworms (Lumbricidae) in very wet weather.

Markus Jais: Is the Buzzard a food generalist or a specialist or can it be both depending on the local situation?
Peter Dare: Food generalist, but was more or less a Rabbit specialist in many areas before Myxomatosis killed >95% of rabbits in 1950s.

North Whales study area hill sheep farm 350m above sealevel


North Wales, study area hill sheep farm 350m above sealevel
© Peter Dare

Markus Jais: What are the Buzzard’s main competitors for food and habitat?
Peter Dare: Red Fox, mustelids (for Rabbits & small mammals). Owls, Kestrels (for voles, small mammals). Red Fox, Raven & Carrion Crow, Red Kite (for sheep carrion). Carrion Crow (for nest sites in uplands).

Markus Jais: Do Buzzards avoid Golden Eagles or White-tailed Eagles?
Peter Dare: These eagles in UK occur only in Scotland. No personal experience there but all 3 raptors breed on some large islands, e.g.Mull. TV films from there show Buzzards and White-tailed Eagles in the air together. On mainland Scotland inland Buzzards occupy lower, more wooded ground and farmland; Golden Eagle is mainly a high mountain species.

Markus Jais: Could increasing Goshawk numbers have an impact on Buzzards, e.g. through competition and predation?
Peter Dare: Possibly but only very locally; no evidence yet. In Devon both species may nest successfully in some woods. Nationally, there are only c.500 pairs of Goshawk and maybe > 30,000 Buzzard pairs.

Markus Jais: What effect could increasing Eagle Owl numbers have?
Peter Dare: None. Eagle Owl does not yet occur naturally in the wild – though an escaped pair did breed successfully in a recent year.

North Whales study area Snowdonia mountains hunting area


North Wales, study area Snowdonia mountains hunting area
© Peter Dare

Markus Jais: Why is the Buzzard more common today in the UK than it was 50 years ago?
Peter Dare: Greatly reduced persecution – result of stronger protection laws since 1981 – and to more enlightened attitudes to wildlife and conservation by most landowners and rural communities. The banning of the most harmful organochlorine pesticides may also have been beneficial locally, as in some uplands where Buzzards fed on dead sheep contaminated with chemical to kill ectoparasites.

Markus Jais: What are the main threats to Buzzards?
Peter Dare:

  • (i) A major national reduction in Buzzard numbers arising from severe declines in Rabbit populations caused by disease, from either: (a) a new pandemic of a more potent strain of myxomatosis; (b) introduction of viral haemorrhagic disease (endemic in Spain).
  • (ii) Locally, a resurgence of persecution on Pheasant rearing and shooting estates, mainly in eastern England (possibly also in parts of Scotland).
    • Markus Jais: How has the attitude towards buzzards among the public and people like farmers and hunters changed?
      Peter Dare: Public – never a problem. Farmers - far more favourable in recent decades (see above). Hunters - much more enlightened generally but a small hard core of game-keepers and estate owners remains, mainly in eastern England and Scotland (see above).

      Markus Jais: How do you see the future of the Buzzard in the UK and beyond?
      Peter Dare: There is probably limited scope for further increase in most places - densities are very high in western areas. In recolonising (eastern) areas much will depend on future food supplies in this intensively farmed arable region. We do not yet know what Buzzard densities may be attained in the new areas. (see also risks from rabbit diseases, above).

      Markus Jais: Many bird watchers often only look quickly at Common Buzzards, for example to rule out something rarer like a Rough-legged Buzzard. What are birders missing when they ignore Common Buzzards?
      Peter Dare: Opportunities to understand the Buzzard’s life style and population behaviour. For much of the year one only sees stationary Buzzards, resting or on hunting perches, or flying low between perches. Often they are out of sight in trees. Repeated good views, however, will show individual plumage patterns. In UK that enables one to plot their local movements and show the presence of pairs that occupy territories. One may, if very lucky, see a Bzzard catch prey. All this, however, takes too much time and effort for the average birder.
      Spring aerial soaring can be spectacular and noisy. They attracts many bird watchers but most only briefly (as you say).
      However, prolonged observations will show (i) courtship displays of a pair - recognise sexes from behaviour and individual plumages, (ii) territorial/boundary interactions between neighbouring pairs, (iii) expulsion of single intruders.
      By combining all such observations of recognisable individuals, one can map and measure territories, and hence calclate accurate population densities within a given area.

      Suffolk, nest wood on arable farm


      Suffolk, nest wood on arable farm
      © Peter Dare

      Markus Jais: How hard is it to write a book about a bird? What would you recommend other ornithologists or bird watchers who want to write a book?
      Peter Dare: It takes much time and application first to document one’s own knowledge of a species (or group) and, where necessary, to compare/combine this with what is already known (literature research).
      Decide the ‘story’ you want to tell. Then, decide what type of readers you think would be most interested. That determines your style of approach (for example, general birders/naturalists, or more academic/ecologists). Organise material into a logical sequence; write simply and clearly. High quality photographs are very useful!

      Markus Jais: What was your most amazing experience with Common Buzzards?
      Peter Dare: Difficult to say but probably: Feeding a wild large nestling by hand. This single well feathered (c.6 weeks old) chick became so used to my daily visits (4 times a day) that it came to regard me as a foster parent. Some days I would give it pieces of meat from rabbit or other large prey that its parents had left on the nest. The young Buzzard flew safely 7-10 days later.

      Markus Jais: Peter, many thanks for the interview!

      More information

      See Peter's fantastic book about the Common Buzzard. The life of Buzzards.

      Many thanks to Photographer Steven Round for allowing me to use 2 of his wonderful buzzard photographes. Steven is a very skilled photographer with many wonderful pictures of buzzards and other species. Make sure to visit his website: Steven Round bird photography