The Common Buzzard is by far the commonest Bird of Prey that can be easily seen by everyone in France “without even having to look or get out of their car”. They are widespread throughout Europe and parts of Asia Minor, but this hasn’t always been the case. Persecuted throughout history you would have had trouble finding one a hundred years ago but since the 1970’s their numbers have rapidly grown all across Western Europe.
It is not without good reason that its common name in French is Buse variable! Juvenile birds in the first year can be almost white with bold chestnut brown splashes on the back, wing uppers and tail, with the under parts and under wing lightly flecked with brown or grey. During the first four years the markings and colouration progressively change, the back, breast and wing uppers become darker, as do the leading and trailing edges of the under wings. In around the second year a single wide dark band develops at the extremity of the tail which is short and wide. The extreme variation in colour and markings cannot be over emphasised, they range from almost totally white, through browns to almost totally black with, it would seem, all imaginable combinations of these colours possible.
Young birds have grey eyes but these quickly change to a brownish yellow. The cere, which is located where the beak joins the head and contains the nostrils, is yellow, as are the legs and talons. The beak itself is hooked and coloured black, the neck is short and the head round.
The wings are broad with rounded ends - see diagram above for under-wing markings.
They are typically between 51-57 cm in length with a 110 to 130 cm wingspan.
Females weigh 700 to 1200 g and Males 550 to 850 g
The overall impression is of a stout, compact bird.
Behaviour, habitat and diet.
The Common Buzzard can be found anywhere that there are both trees and open spaces. This can be large woodlands or where trees are scattered such as in agricultural zones, from low altitudes to mountains, but there is always a requirement for open spaces. They can often appear to be a bird that takes things easy as when they are not apparently soaring effortlessly on thermal currents they will be seen perched motionless in a tree, on a post or something similar. This shouldn’t be allowed to mislead us; they are constantly looking and listening for the next snack. Very rarely seen together in groups except perhaps when a number will gather in a field that has recently been harvested and there is a good, easily accessible food supply where in these circumstances they will often be seen together with Black kites .
They are both flexible in what they will eat and the method of capture. The bulk of their diet is small mammals, mice and voles, which are caught on the ground, (Hence: German – Mäusebussard or Mouse Buzzard and Spanish - Ratonero or Mouse eater.). However they also take birds, reptiles, batrachians, insects, slugs and earth worms. Small quantities of cereals and carrion will sometimes be eaten when other food is in short supply and there is some evidence that they will occasionally take smaller poultry. They are particularly well known for their method of catching moles by watching for the soil to move, when they then pounce from their perch. They also locate prey by listening for movements in grass. Like many other raptors they use their binocular vision to locate prey when gliding at around at an altitude of 100 metres or so.
In the southern and western regions of France the majority of Common Buzzards are sedentary throughout the year and couples will have a territory for life although they will move should food become really scarce. In winter there will be some augmentation of numbers in the west and south west of France when there is a partial migration from both the east and the north east which explains why we often see more of them in winter in those regions (as well as the lack of leaves and a tendency to perch on low posts in winter).
Breeding and Reproduction.
As early as January couples will choose a new nest site high in a large tree or a ledge on a rock face, (still within their territory), and start to intensify their defence of it. The nest is constructed using twigs and small braches; then lined with leaves and grasses. At the same time ritual bonding flights or “displays” take place where the pair climb high into the sky together making passes, turns and dives.
The female lays 1 to 4 eggs at intervals of 3 or 4 days and it is the female that spends most of the time with the eggs and young, the male only replaces her occasionally. He spends his time hunting for food and defending the nest from interference. Incubation takes about 35 days until the last chick hatches. Initially prey that is brought to the nest is torn into small pieces before being feed to the young, then when they are about a month old they are given whole prey to shred themselves. Often the last born fails to get its fair share and ends up being trampled to death by the others. Even when the young birds fledge they remain dependent on their parents to provide food for a month or two. Breeding starts in the third year.
The average life span is 12 years with a record of 28 years 9 months in Denmark.
Status, threats and menaces.
There are no really serious threats these days for the Common Buzzard although a certain amount of persecution still continues illegally this hardly constitutes a “serious problem” and is more a hangover from the past with a small number of “hunters”. Many Buzzards that appear to have died in a healthy condition will show evidence of shot gun pellets when x-rayed or will have been poisoned. Population will vary according to the number of voles available and in poor years some will move out of the area.
Status - Fully protected species.