Playful Buzzards

Object play behaviour has been recorded in a number of raptor species (Fagen, 1981; Hewitt, 2013). Below are notes on two observations made at Sheskinmore of playful Common Buzzards Buteo buteo.

19th September 2010

At about 1700 two Common Buzzards and two Common Ravens Corvus corax were seen soaring together over the southern slope of Mullyvea hill [IG693950]. The birds were observed through 10x binoculars and a 20x-60x ‘scope at a distance of about 400 yards. The sighting lasted at least 45 minutes in total. The weather was mild and overcast with a strong westerly breeze which may have influenced the aerobatics.

The Buzzards were chasing, rolling and diving at each other with frequent talon presentations. When one of the Ravens dived at a Buzzard, the Buzzard responded similarly with a roll and talon presentation. This soaring behaviour continued for about five minutes.

One Buzzard then rose to a fixed height carrying a small round object in its talons. It dropped the object and dived to catch it in flight before rising to repeat this action, which it performed four times in total. On the second catch the object broke in two and on the third and fourth it fragmented into smaller pieces. From its colour, the speed it fell and the way it broke up it was assumed to be a piece of dried cow dung, of which there was plenty on the hillside.

This drop-catching Buzzard then gave prolonged chase to one of the Ravens, after which the Raven picked up a twig and carried it in flight. At least once it switched the twig from foot to bill. At this stage four Choughs Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax flew past and seemed to be briefly involved in the chasing. The two Buzzards flew off west and the Ravens settled on Mullyvea hill.

A few minutes later the Buzzards were back, one again drop-catching a small object, but this time missing it on the second drop. The bird landed and tussled on the ground with its conspecific before repeatedly leaping on a piece of cow dung and rolling almost onto its back in an energetic fashion. Once more this Buzzard rose with dung in its talons and attempted to drop-catch it, upon which the object fragmented.

The Buzzards then resumed soaring with dives and talon presentations. Subsequently one of them again lifted some dung, and with short meandering flights between each, performed five aerial drop-catches. It also did two aerial rolls while holding the object (one appeared to be a full 360° roll) before leaving it and flying off by itself in a south-east direction. By this time its conspecific and the Ravens had been lost from view.

It was not possible to identify whether it was the same Buzzard drop-catching on every occasion. However, it was noted that the bird(s) involved sometimes carried the objects in just one foot. There was occasional (but limited) calling from both Ravens and Buzzards throughout. In all, ten successful drop-catches were seen.

Weir and Picozzi (1975) observed immature Buzzards drop-catching objects in communal autumn flights and adult pairs occasionally did the same in apparent display. In a thirty year study Prytherch (2009) noted drop-catching only in juvenile Buzzards, usually outside of breeding territories. Munro (1954) saw a solitary Prairie Falcon Falco mexicanus repeatedly dropping, tossing and catching a piece of dry cow dung. Ravens are also known to carry, drop and catch objects in flight (Heinrich, 1999).

31st August 2012

From 0703 to 0717 two Buzzards were involved in aerial chasing and diving and twisting flights low over the steep dune slopes at Ballinreavy Strand [IG6994]. These were very aerobatic flights with rapid turns and changes of direction. When a bird perched it was often dived upon by the other. This was clearly not agonistic as mutual soaring and brief hovering in close proximity then occurred. Three diving attacks at a tall Ragwort Senecio jacobaea (or possibly umbellifer Umbelliferae) plant growing on the side of a dune were observed; on each occasion the Buzzard(s) striking the top of the plant with outstretched talons.

One Buzzard made repeated attempts to break off turf and or matted vegetation from the top of the bank and struggled at this for some time, flapping its wings. At one point it hung upside down still clinging to the vegetation with its feet, whereupon it was dived at by its conspecific. Eventually it succeeded and made the same rapid and more leisurely soaring flights as before, this time carrying the vegetation. When dodging the other Buzzard it was remarkable how it kept hold of the material. Perhaps the vegetation was entangled in the bird’s talons by this stage.

The two Buzzards had very pale underparts but it was difficult to age them at distance. By 0717 they had gone from view. At c0730 three Buzzards were briefly seen over the same slope but they soon dispersed (none were carrying objects). A similar light coloured Buzzard was later (c0856) seen bathing in shallow water at Sheskinmore Lough.

Baker (1969) noted that the Peregrines Falco peregrinus he observed in the south of England “always” engaged in play (and bathing) before hunting, including mock attacks on non-food objects such as those described above. Young Kestrels Falco tinnunculus will also playfully “hunt” non-food objects despite already being capable of catching real prey (L. Tinbergen, cited in Thorpe, 1963).

Notes on both observations

Unfortunately the Buzzards were not aged on either occasion but the observations were made in August and September, well outside the Buzzard breeding season, which indicates that courtship display was not involved. However, as two birds were present on both occasions some social display function cannot be entirely discounted. Other potential adaptive benefits might be practice of hunting skills or physical training. A relaxed environment is a key criterion of play behaviour (Burghardt, 2005). As Sheskinmore is relatively undisturbed by people it is a wonderful place to see such behaviour in Buzzards. Despite many hours of watching this observer is yet to see anything similar in Buzzards at other sites.


References

Baker, J.A. 1967. The Peregrine. Harper & Row, New York.

Burghardt, G.M. 2005. The Genesis of Animal Play. MIT, Cambridge, Mass.

Fagen, R. 1981. Animal Play Behaviour. OUP, New York.

Heinrich, B. 1999. Mind of the Raven. Harper Collins, New York

Hewitt, S. 2013. Avian drop-catch play: a review. British Birds 106: 206-216.

Munro, D.A. 1954. Prairie Falcon ‘playing’. Auk 71: 333–334

Prytherch R. J. 2009. The social behaviour of the Common Buzzard. British Birds 102: 247–273.

Thorpe, W.H. 1963. Learning and instinct in animals. 2nd ed. London, Methuen.

Weir, D. and Picozzi, N. 1975. Aspects of social behaviour in the Buzzard. British Birds 68 (4), 125-141.

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