Bill Greenwell and sparrowhawks

The new Featured Writer is Bill Greenwell , the hugely popular tutor for Exeter Uni’s Lifelong Learning’s poetry clinic, a fantastic poet and performer among other things. Meanwhile, sparrowhawks quarter the August skies above the gardens, to snatch innocent sparrows like a gust of wind with claws. I met one only recently.

That morning when I woke I realised the cheeping pulse of the garden had stopped. Had the soundlessness woken me? Sunlight brightened the view of lawn, hedge and flowerbed.  The quiet was almost unearthly.  Normally the sounds of fledgling sparrows importuning their harassed parents flowed through every open window. But that morning there was an absence. A foreboding crept over me. From the bathroom window, as I brush my teeth, I usually spot the heads of ten or more fledgling house sparrows pop out of the top of the hedge. That morning: nothing, just twigs and leaves. When I went outside to put some bird seed on the feeder there was no flurry of feathers, no whirry wing-beats, no urgent cries of delight.

Over the summer we have watched the young goldfinches grow into their scarlet faces, the siskins turn yellow, the nuthatches grow long tails and learn to peck out the nuts and the woodpeckers grow their harlequin feathers. Until the trouble appeared out of nowhere.

An explosive burst of swallow-chittering in the sky made me look up to glimpse against the sky a mass of swallows ganging up on a grey-blue swathe of wing and tail. Sparrow-hawks may be very agile but I don’t think they catch swallows (although hobbies can).

A short while later, on the wall of our neighbour’s garden stood a sparrow hawk – looking like a highwayman wrapped in a blue cloak, his underparts speckled grey and white but tinged with chestnut fire, the black pupil in his orange eyes like a laser, his surprisingly long legs sheathed like weapons, his four toes tooled to grip. He was staring in at the kitchen window. Perhaps he was watching a reflection of himself in the pane but I felt he might just be sizing me up. Unusual to observe a sparrowhawk so close: they are mostly just disappearing from our field of vision. Gusts of wind ruffled his feathers, tried to lift him but his talons tightened on the stone. A sparrow-hawk grabs its prey, never hovering.( Its Latin name – Accipiter – comes from the verb accipere, to grasp.)

Later still, the magpies set up a ferocious chackling and made me look into the garden. The male sparrowhawk was crouched on the lawn, tearing the feathers out of a bird he must have nabbed from the bird-table, biding his time. You never know who is watching who out there in the garden.


About Rebecca Gethin

Rebecca Gethin is a poet and a novelist. Cinnamon Press published her third collection, All the Time in the World in 2017. Another pamphlet is forthcoming with Three Drops Press. Her second novel, What the horses heard, was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2014. Her second poetry collection - A Handful of Water - was published by Cinnamon in 2013. Her first - River is the Plural of Rain - was published by Oversteps Books in 2009. Her novel Liar Dice won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award in 2010 and was published in 2011. She lives on Dartmoor and writes occasional pieces about wildlife and nature. Her poems appear in a variety of poetry magazines and in several anthologies.
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8 Responses to Bill Greenwell and sparrowhawks

  1. Val says:

    We have a lot of sparrowhawks here, some of them are daring enough to appear on the patio right in front of the glass-fronted dining room doors. If we spot them in time and can act swiftly enough we chase them away, but occasionally they manage to grab a bird – sparrow or bluetit, something small. Nearlty everything is afraid of them, though.

    The worst predators here in recent times have been a pair of full-size ravens. One, landing on the branch of one of our trees, bent it nearly to the ground with its weight.

  2. jan fortune says:

    Fantastic post and great choice of featured poet 🙂

  3. E.E. Nobbs says:

    What wonderfully suspenseful story telling dear Becky!! Your sparrow hawk tale would make a great radio/podcast drama! Great last line. For some reason makes me think of “Only the Shadow knows!” which was a bit before my time…must go You-Tube an episode.. Anyway, I digress. I thought of your post when I saw this rather (melo)dramatic bird chases people story from PEI (the poor bird!).

    And I’m tickled to see Bill and his fine poems on your site this month. I clicked on the shoes and sand photo to enlarge it to see it. in glorious detail. And the new-to-me last poem left me thinking about…life and the people we get to know.

    Elly x

    p.s. I shared your post with my Facebook friends.

  4. Nice to hear from you, Elly. I see on Prince Edward Island there is a grouse with a grouse…… do you suppose the plural of grouse is ‘grice’? (grice with grice or with grouses) Cheers fro now B

  5. What a lovely post. Being immersed in the ways of birds is a wonderful thing.

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