The common buzzard is the most abundant raptor in Scotland and is frequently seen, and heard, soaring over the forest.
The common buzzard occurs throughout Europe and large parts of northwestern Asia. It is resident (meaning that it lives there year-round) in all of Europe except Scandinavia, and in Turkey and the other countries immediately surrounding the Black Sea, as well as in northern Iran. Other populations breed in the summer in Scandinavia, the Baltic states and northwestern Russia and then migrate southwards for the winter to parts of North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, the west coast of India and eastern Africa, from Ethiopia to South Africa.
A number of subspecies are recognised, with one main one occurring in most of Europe, while others are specific to various islands, such as the Canary Islands, the Azores, and Corsica and Sardinia.
In Scotland the common buzzard occurs throughout all parts of the mainland and on some of the larger Western Isles, including Skye, Lewis, Harris, North Uist and Mull. It is also present on Orkney, where it is a priority species on the Local Biodiversity Action Plan, but is absent from Shetland and some of the smaller islands on the West Coast. Because of persecution in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was mainly restricted to the mountainous areas in the north and west of the country, but its numbers have increased again since then and it is now the most common raptor, or bird of prey, in Scotland.
Because of its very large geographic range and overall stable population, the common buzzard is classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, indicating that it is not facing any imminent threats at a global level. It is listed on Appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), meaning that trade in the species must be controlled in order to avoid threats to its survival.
In the UK the common buzzard is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, but it is not included on Schedule 1 of the Act, which provides a special higher level of protection for most of the country’s other raptors. Despite its protected status, the buzzard is still persecuted and illegally killed in some areas, either by being shot, or from poison being placed in carrion on which it feeds.
The common buzzard is a medium-sized raptor in the Accipitridae family, which also includes eagles, hawks, kites and harriers. It is 50 – 58 cm in length, with a wingspan of 110 – 135 cm, and weighs from 0.5 – 1.3 kg. When it is soaring in flight its wings have somewhat ragged-looking edges and the wing-tip feathers are spread apart, while the tail is broad and fan-shaped.
The plumage is generally brown, although the actual shade of brown can vary considerably, and the upper sides are darker than the under parts. There is some barring on the wings and tail and an area of white on the chest, which often takes the form of a chevron or V-shape when the bird is perched. When it fledges a young buzzard has a distinctive plumage for the first two or three years, after which it darkens to the fully adult coloration it will retain for the rest of its life.
The bare, unfeathered sections of a buzzard’s legs are bright yellow, as are its feet, each of which has four sharp, curved and dark-coloured talons. The cere (the area that contains the buzzard’s nostrils, just behind the bill) and the edges of the mouth are also yellow, and the eyes are brown. The bill is a blackish-blue colour and is a typical shape for a raptor, being hooked, with the upper mandible extending over, and in front of, the lower one.
Male and female birds are identical in appearance, with the female being slightly larger than the male. The call of the buzzard is a distinctive ‘pee-yow’, which has been likened to the meow of a domestic cat, and is often repeated when a bird is in flight.
The common buzzard lives in a range of habitats, including forests and woodland edges, as well as fields and meadows. Birds are highly territorial and can occur at densities of up to one pair per square kilometre in areas with a good food supply and plentiful nesting sites.
The common buzzard is a predator, and feeds mainly on small mammals including voles (Microtis agrestis), mice, moles (Talpa europaea), rats (Rattus spp.) and young rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and hares (Lepidus timidus). It is an opportunistic feeder, and will take birds including pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) and song thrushes (Turdus philomelos), as well as lizards (Zootoca vivipara), slow worms (Anguis fragilis), snakes, and can also be seen on the ground in fields, looking for worms and insects. Its hunting method includes both flying low over the ground and hovering in the air, looking for prey, and then diving down on half-opened wings to seize the prey in its talons. The buzzard can often be seen perched on fence posts, and it will also scavenge from carrion.
Mating begins in early spring and a pair of buzzards will stay together for life. The male performs a spectacular aerial courtship display known as ‘the rollercoaster’, in which he ascends in the air and then plummets downwards, twisting and turning in a spiral pattern before rising up and repeating the process. In mainland Scotland buzzards build large nests, up to 1 metre across and 60 cm deep, high up in mature trees, usually near the edge of a wood. The nest is made out of branches and sticks and is lined with green vegetation. In treeless parts of the country buzzards will nest on small rocky crags, or even on sand dunes.
The female lays two to four eggs at intervals of two to three days each and she incubates them for about 35 days. When the chicks hatch they are brooded by the female for about three weeks, during which time the male brings food. The chicks are covered in brownish-grey down at first, and feathers begin to appear after 12 days. It is rare for all the chicks to reach maturity, as some may be lost to predation, or the smallest may sometimes be trampled to death by the larger chicks. Fledging takes place after 50-60 days, and the adults continue to feed the young birds for another six to eight weeks. The common buzzard reaches sexual maturity after three years, and an individual bird can live for up to 25 years.
As a predator, the common buzzard exerts pressures on its prey populations, both in terms of killing individuals and by stimulating behavior in its prey to reduce the risk of being caught. Crows (Corvus spp.), for example, will mob a buzzard, with several individuals combining to drive a buzzard away, if they feel their chicks are threatened.
Despite being a raptor, the buzzard is not at the top of the food chain, and is itself subject to predation by larger birds of prey, including the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) and the Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo). Crows will prey upon unguarded buzzard eggs and chicks are taken from the nest by the goshawk (Accipiter gentilis).
As a predator, the buzzard is susceptible to endoparasites – internal parasites that live inside their hosts. These are ingested with its prey, and include a tapeworm (Cladotaenia globifera) and a flatworm or fluke (Strigea falconispalumbi).
In the past the common buzzard was treated as vermin, because of its presumed predation on game birds. However, those impacts in reality are quite small, and with a reduction of persecution, the buzzard has spread again in Scotland, making it the raptor that is most frequently seen by people in the country.
Alan Watson Featherstone
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