A friend, John Nichol, an avid birdwatcher whose present patch is the Old Head of Kinsale, had some unique sightings this week.
His email reads: “The ravens have been having a tough time. On Tuesday, they were attacked by a peregrine falcon, on Wednesday by black-backed gulls and on Thursday by both. I would have thought a male peregrine would be too small to take on a raven but it made a spectacular dive causing the raven to flip upside down in flight and fend it off with its claws.
“By Thursday, there were five greater black-backed gulls taking it in turns to dive bomb them. I watched this going on for around an hour before I left for home. I haven’t seen the ravens since then, but I imagine they survived the encounters but are avoiding the area for the time being.”
Ravens mate for life. This pair, having raised their latest family on the nearby cliffs, made the ruined DeCourcy castle at the gate to the Old Head their regular roost. If humans think they can have a hard time with neighbours, this is unlikely to include being dive-bombed with murderous intent, first by a single, sensate missile travelling at up to 390kph, then by a bully-gang of five birds, each larger, with wingspans up to 1.7m, and as heavy as themselves (2kg).
John remarked that it was surprising that a male peregrine, weighing, at maximum, one kilo, should attack a raven, twice its weight. A female peregrine with a more equal mass would be a more likely assailant, but the element of speed and surprise would enable even the lighter male to knock the raven out of the sky if hit accurately.
Meanwhile, the beaks of great black-backed gulls are as large and formidable as those of raven. Outnumbered, it was no wonder the ravens were driven off. It is a pity though. In terms of suitable birds for the location, they couldn’t have been bettered for scenic and atmospheric value, except, perhaps, by owls. Ravens and ruins go together in legend and in story.
The flipping-over-and-flying-upside-down trick was witnessed by my son watching two ravens playing in the skies of western Canada. One, he said, pursued the other, twisting and turning in flight. The pursued held a twig in its beak and the game involved the other trying to take it, planing below it on its back and grabbing at the bird above with its talons.
They flew in perfect symmetry, in perfect concert, the bird below a mirror-image of the one above. Clearly, the upside-down bird couldn’t be flapping its wings; it was either aero-planing or achieving motion by subtly moving the wings’ angle, flying rather as an aero foil does. Against the blue sky of the Canadian Rockies, it was (as they say in Canada) awesome, to watch.
A month ago, in mid-breeding season, the heron, nicknamed Ron, that had come to our garden almost daily for eight years suddenly came no more. He is greatly missed. Children loved coming to see him, he and they both keeping a safe distance from one another.
On Saturday morning last, my wife called me, phone in hand.
“Michael O’Brien says there’s a heron staggering around on the road up Ramsey Hill! It might be damaged. He wonders could it be Ron?”
Off we went in the car and arrived at the hill a flat 10 minutes later. Up and down the road, we skipped, staring into ditches and driveways. A lone lady walking past must have thought we were mad.
“We’re looking for a heron,” I mumbled.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “The heron gone from your house, I read about it.”
Under her arm, she had the latest Irish Examiner.
A jeep came sweeping into a nearby drive and braked. Down went the window and there was Michael Hanly, whose parents were often-times custodian of our lost Ron, telling me that earlier a heron was strolling about his yard, however it definitely wasn’t ‘our’ bird, but an immature scouting for territory. Today, when Marie looked up at the bright blue sky, there, perched on the pergola over our balcony, was a scrawny, recently-left-the-nest bird. It took off with as near to rocket speed as a heron can muster.
For the last few nights, I’ve put a couple of thawed-out sprat in the pond in the fond hope that the same bird might spot them and make a habit of visiting. Each morning they’re gone. In a freezer, we have two slabs of the same fish, left by Ron. We can’t possibly eat them ourselves!