When Care Aids Conservation

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An Unusual Rescue

It isn’t every day that an animal brought into the Cape of Good Hope SPCA Wildlife Department helps to further our collective knowledge about that species in the wild. When that animal happens to be an adult black sparrowhawk wearing some unique jewellery, the opportunities to learn from him are exciting.

The adult bird was brought into the SPCA’s Wildlife Department having been reported to us by a concerned citizen who noticed the “large eagle-like bird” standing beside the road in the leafy suburb of Rondebosch East, Cape Town. The SPCA inspector who was attended to the call realised that there was something immediately wrong with the bird when it made no moves to flap away or resist any attempts to try and capture it. This is unusual behaviour for a fierce raptor, even one in Rondebosch East…

The Veterinary Assessment

Safely back at the Cape of Good Hope SPCA, the bird was identified by the Wildlife Department as a black sparrowhawk (Accipiter Melanoleucus), or ‘spar’ for short. Almost uniformly black with a white chest, this one was a rare black-chested morph.

The bird was carefully checked out by a veterinarian whose initial assessment was that our bird was underweight, completely blind in one eye and generally of an advanced age. With only partial sight, he might have been struck by a car or unwittingly met an electric fence chasing down a prey bird. Due to the birds poor condition the decision was made to humanely end the bird’s suffering as chances for his recovery to full flight given his poor eyesight, advanced age and possible internal injuries was slim. A remainder of life confined to a cage is no life at all for a sultan of the skies such as a sparrowhawk!

Unique "Jewellery" With a Purpose

One of the first things the attending inspectors noticed about our bird was the fact that he was wearing some unusual jewellery! On his right leg, he wore a plain, purple-coloured metal band and on his left leg; a silver metal band imprinted with a code “7A000137” and a website address where the code could be reported to should the bird be found.

The website in question is that of the UCT Black Sparrowhawk Project. We asked Kyle Walker, Field Technician and leader of the UCT Black Sparrowhawk Project to explain the purpose of the rings. “The silver ring with a code on it is a Safring. Every ringed bird in South Africa, no matter the species, must receive a Safring containing a unique code which is uploaded to a central database. The Safring database is administered from the Fitzpatrick Institute at UCT. We use three colour rings to be able to identify each ringed bird from a distance. So, for example a purple over black ring on the left leg accompanied by a red over Safring on the right leg (purple/black: red/Safring).” There are also different size rings according to the sex of the bird; males have thinner legs therefore thinner rings whereas the females (who are generally larger than the males), get a wider ring.

Our bird wore only one coloured ring because he was ringed so long ago when there were fewer combinations being used.

In fact, Kyle remembers ringing this particular bird as part of his project when it was just a chick – 12 years ago!

Research Insights

“This year there were about eight breeding adults all aged 12-years old,” Kyle tells us, so this old boy’s “ripe old age” is not so rare it turns out. “It is pushing the upper age limit, but they have been known to live for about 17 years although none of the breeding adults hold a territory for that long. The average age of breeding adults is about eight years-old in our population on the Cape peninsula,” says Kyle. One of the first birds that was ringed at the start of the sparrowhawk project in 2001 was an adult female bird who is still very much alive and still at home in her original nest (although at last count she was on her fourth partner!) 

We know that our bird was born in a nest in Clovelly that is still in use, although not by its original architects and has been added to over time by its new tenants.

Adult spars do sometimes take over other abandoned nests, although this isn’t very commonly observed. An adult pair will return to the same nest each time and many nests will never be seen as it’s only the known-about nests that are monitored by the researchers. 

We wondered if each ringed bird gets given a special name? “No names,” confirmed Kyle. “There are too many birds to name them all. We simply use the ring colour combination when referring to them.”

The Western Cape has a healthy population of black sparrowhawks. There are roughly 700 spars that have been ringed since the start of the project in 2001, but it is believed that there are far more un-ringed birds flying about than there are birds that have been ringed.

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