A Sparrowhawk's Lament

Britain is home to fifteen species of breeding birds of prey, from the hedgerow-hopping Sparrowhawk to the breathtaking White-tailed Eagle. In this handsomely illustrated book, acclaimed British filmmaker and naturalist David Cobham offers unique and deeply personal insights into Britain’s birds of prey and how they are faring today.

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A Sparrowhawk’s Lament

David delves into the history of these marvelous birds and talks in depth with the scientists and conservationists who are striving to safeguard them. In doing so, he profiles the writers, poets, and filmmakers who have done so much to change the public’s perception of birds of prey. Thanks to popular television programs, the Victorian myth that any bird with a hooked beak is evil has been dispelled. However, although there are success stories–five birds of prey that were extinct have become reestablished with viable populations–persecution is still rife: so much so that one bird of prey, the Hen Harrier, became extinct in England as a breeding bird in 2013.

Featuring drawings by famed wildlife artist Bruce Pearson, this book reveals why we must cherish and celebrate our birds of prey, and why we neglect them at our peril. In A Sparrowhawk’s Lament, you will learn how the perfection of the double-barreled shotgun sounded a death knell for British birds of prey in the nineteenth century, how the conscription of gamekeepers during two world wars gave them a temporary reprieve, how their fortunes changed yet again with the introduction of agricultural pesticides in the 1950s, why birds of prey are vital to Britain’s ecosystems and cultural heritage – and much more.


The Sparrowhawk is certainly one of my favourite birds of prey. The cock bird in breeding plumage is, says Mark Cocker, the wildlife author, ‘arguably our most beautiful raptor.’  Its ground hugging flight before flipping over a hedge to catch prey on the other side is breath taking. Sadly this raptor is now in decline, 35,000 pairs.


The return of the Osprey from extinction is one of the great conservation stories of all time.  An Osprey fishing is an astonishing sight. It plunges down, feet stretched forward. Splash! As it lifts off it aligns the fish to create the least drag. Epic! Year by year the Osprey population is increasing. 250 pairs.

Honey Buzzard

This rare bird of prey doesn’t eat honey and it isn’t a buzzard. It is a migrant and when it arrives it eats frogs and other amphibians. Later it digs out wasp’s nests and feeds the grubs to its young. For years an air of mystique surrounded this bird. It was supposed to be hyper-sensitive. The bird just needs to be treated with the respect afforded any bird of prey. There is a small population that is increasing.

Red Kite

The Red Kite in ancient time was afforded Royal patronage for their ‘winged bin man’ role, scavenging the streets for rotting garbage. All that changed with game preservation. It was persecuted almost into extinction. A handful of pairs remained in Wales. In 1989 a re-introduction scheme was initiated which has been very successful. There are now almost two thousand pairs and still increasing.

White Tailed Eagle

This is another favourite of mine. Think of Anthony Gormley’s statue ‘Angel of the North’. This eagle’s wings are just like that, straight edged and enormous. A Buzzard looks like a sparrow alongside it. Extinct by 1916 poisoned by sheep farmers, shot by gamekeepers the White-tailed Eagle has been restored to our skies by a highly ambitious re-introduction project in Scotland. Today there are fifty pairs and increasing.

Marsh Harrier

This is a particular favourite of mine. At our Hawk and Owl Trust reserve in Norfolk one particular female known as ‘Mrs H’ has been nesting with us since 2004 since when she has reared 42 plus young.  She is a formidable matriarch. Extinct at one stage the Marsh Harrier has made a spectacular come back. It is centred principally on East Anglia with a population approaching 400 pairs.

Hen Harrier

The Hen Harrier is a bird which has been persecuted in modern times more rigorously in Britain than any other bird of prey. Its fate as a British breeding bird hangs in the balance. Will we allow it to become extinct?  On grouse moors up and down the Pennine chain a co-ordinated effort by keepers have removed all raptors purely in the interest of a minority few wanting to shoot grouse. It is obscene. As a result there were no successful breeding pairs of Hen Harriers in England during 2013.

Montagu's Harrier

This is the rarest and the most beautiful of our three harriers. Ten years ago there was a colony of breeding Montagu’s in Norfolk and I can remember driving slowly up a road following a male Montagu’s as it hunted the roadside verge. Long grey wings, black tips.  Flap, flap, glide. Head looking down, eyes and ears on full alert for a scurrying field vole. Population small but static.


Persecuted into extinction in the British Isles by 1889. Much admired by falconers it was their lost birds and unofficial and official releases after World War Two that restored it as a British breeding bird. Population on the up, 400 pairs.

Common Buzzard

The Buzzard’s eats anything from earthworms to Carrion Crow squabs. Persecution and myxamatosis which killed off rabbits, a favourite prey items, severely reduced its population to the West country, Wales and Scotland. A more tolerant attitude of gamekeepers has resulted in its population booming. It is now the commonest bird of prey, 60,000-80,000 pairs.

Golden Eagle

The Golden Eagle’s awe-inspiring fierceness, its mastery of the air, its acuity of vision, these are all physical virtues to which we would aspire. It is deeply embedded in our culture as a symbol. Persecuted by game preservationist it survived by retreating to the wild fastness of the Scottish Highlands. It is still persecuted but its population at over 400 pairs is stable.


Hovering, hunting the grassy banks along motorways searching for prey, the Kestrel is the one bird of prey which everyone knows. Immortalized in Gerard Manley Hopkins poem ‘The Windhover’ the Kestrel was once our commonest bird of prey. Sadly, it is now in decline, 46,000 pairs – perhaps through competition with the Common Buzzard.


The Merlin is the smallest breeding bird of prey found in the British Isles. It is a feisty little bird and can outfly and catch Meadow Pipits and Skylarks. Its population is relatively stable in Scotland but it has contracted on the North Yorkshire Moors. 1200 pairs, declining.


The Hobby is a summer visitor. It is about the same size as a Kestrel. To observe it catching dragonflies must be every birdwatchers major event. Its dexterity as it passes its prey from talon to beak in flight is awesome. At nearly 3,000 pairs the Hobby’s population is increasing.

Peregrine Falcon

Alongside the Sparrowhawk the Peregrine is my favourite bird of prey. It is no stealthy assassin. The Peregrine’s sky splitting stoop, timed at almost 200 m.p.h., as it dives to kill its prey is one of the most exhilarating experiences in the natural world. Devastated by pesticides, the Peregrine made a remarkable recovery. With an increasing population of 1,500 pairs the Peregrine now breeds in every county in England on cliffs, quarries and on tall buildings in cities.

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Princeton University Press


Book Details:

Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Princeton University Press (6 Jun 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0691157642
ISBN-13: 978-0691157641

  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 15.2 x 2.6 cm
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David Cobham

David’s career as a film maker took off with his dramatization of T.H.White’s book, “The Goshawk,” first shown on BBC 2. This was followed by an adaptation of a Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire.” He then persuaded the BBCs Natural History Unit to allow him to make “The Vanishing Hedgerows”. This was based on Henry Williamson’s memories of farming in Norfolk between 1936 and 1946. The film won a prize at the Montreux Festival and was, I think, the first conservation film made by the BBC. Further films for the BBC on London’s Natural History and Peregrine Falcons in Scotland followed. A BAFTA for his documentary/drama on Amundsen enabled David and Bill Travers to raise the funding to make a cinema film of “Tarka the Otter.” More natural history films for the BBC followed: a series on the Japanese attitude to wildlife, a film on the flood plain in Mali where many of our birds spend their winter and a series for Channel 4 following Bruce Pearson as he travels to his favourite locations sketching birds.

Bruce Pearson

David Cobham writes: I first met Bruce in 1976 on Bird Island near South Georgia in Antarctica when I was making a film for the BBC. I bought one of his paintings of a Blue-eyed Shag and I have followed his meteoric rise as one our outstanding wildlife artists ever since. In 1978 he was elected as a member of the Society of Wildlife Artists. As well as exhibiting his paintings all over the world he’s published several books – Rare Mammals of the World, An Artist on Migration, a book on the Camargue and in 2009 he embarked on his most ambitious book of all, Troubled Waters, which explores the conflict between commercial long-line fishing and the wandering Albatross. In 1994 he was elected President of Society of Wildlife Artists a post he held for ten years. I worked with him on two films. The first was Beyond Timbuktu, in which we tracked the migrant birds from this country as they follow the retreating winter floods back to their source at the river Niger. Later, there was Birdscape, six 30 minute programmes on Bruce’s favourite landscape and the birds that live in them. I am so glad that he agreed to undertake illustrating A Sparrowhawk’s Lament. His illustrations have enhanced our story no end.

Praise for A Sparrowhawk’s Lament

BBC Wildlife Magazine – Book of the Month July 2014

“It seems odd that the birds of prey we admire so deeply for their physical prowess (sharp eyesight, powerful talons and thrilling hunting techniques) are also the ones that we have persecuted over generations. However, there are signs that our relationships with these birds are changing for the better. In A Sparrowhawk’s Lament David Cobham, vice-president of the Hawk and Own Trust, captures this shift in an engaging and informative style, supported by lively illustrations from renowned wildlife artist Bruce Pearson. Through his own insights, coupled with the voices of others working in raptor conservation in Britain, Cobham reveals the stories behind 15 species. Some, such as the peregrine falcon and white-tailed eagle, are buoyant, their numbers increasing because of conservation efforts. Others, however, continue to lose ground because of ongoing persecution. There are moments where the author is too eager to impart lots of facts, and the text jumps around a bit. But when he returns to the flow of his narrative A Sparrowhawk’s Lament is engaging reading. The book will remain a firm favourite with those, like me, for whom these are special birds.”

—Mike Toms, Ornithologist

Bird Watching Magazine

“Subtitled ‘How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring’, this fine book offers naturalist and film-maker David Cobham’s personal insights into 15 species. There are terrific drawings by renowned artist Bruce Pearson, and a foreword by Chris Packham, but the real strength of the book is the sheer detail that Cobham gets into his writing – there’s close observation and field notes, plus all manner of information on the history of these species, the art and writing has been inspired by them , and reflection on the way that perception of them has been changed over the last century or so. That leads straight on to the question of the birds’ future, and although Cobham salutes the success stories, with five extinct species, re-established with viable breeding populations, he doesn’t shy away from the problems still faced, most notably the persecution that has virtually eliminated the Hen Harrier from England. Engrossing, entertaining and covering a vast range of subjects, this is a highly recommended read.”

—Matt Merritt

“This book has many strengths: it is not only crammed with ornithological references but also cultural, historical, sociological, military, literary and artistic, making it a fascinating and refreshing read. And it is also contemporary, a detailed ‘snapshot’ of these birds right now, in terms of numbers, population trends and a wide range of attitudes. But for me the real strengths are its very personal reflections on a lifetime of interest and concern, an intimate exposition of boundless curiosity and a rare but essential pragmatic modesty when it comes to fact and expertise.

I read this book, enjoyed it, learned a lit and ultimately, through its infectious enthusiasm, I felt inspired to work harder myself when it comes to finding solutions to ensure the future survival of this unique and very special group of birds. It does British birds of prey a great service, and boy do they need it – so I hope that you will read it and be suitable inspired too.”

—Chris Packham

“All the famous raptor stories are here – the return of the Osprey, the reintroduction of the Red Kite and the White-tailed Eagle, the fall and rise of the Peregrine, the spread of the Marsh Harrier and the Common Buzzard and the troubled past (and present) of the Hen Harrier. Each of these stories (and others) is addressed in detail, providing a comprehensive and important historical record. Indeed the book’s major achievement is its thoroughness- Cobham has spared no pains in his travelling, in his research and in his collaborations.

Needless to say, the history of our relationship with Britain’s birds of prey is both long and complicated, and it remains so today. No other group of birds attracts such emotions and such tangled politics. This book therefore treads a sometimes delicate path between a host of competing interests – politicians, landowners, grouse-shooters, pheasant-rearers, gamekeepers, fishermen, scientists, conservationists and birdwatchers – and manages to provide a well-balanced account of the issues involved. These are sensitively handled and the author is not overtly partisan but nevertheless his conservation instincts shine through.

This is a thorough and comprehensive account of Britain’s birds of prey and our long and complex relationship with them. It is at times depressing, at times full of hope but a fuller guide to the issues facing our magnificent raptors it would be hard to imagine.”

An excerpt from the full review here: http://andystoddart.weebly.com/a-sparrowhawks-lament.html

Andy Stoddart

“This is a wonderful look at birds of prey today and an essential for anyone with an interest or passion for wildlife, conservation and/or birds of prey. David Cobham injects his decades of experience into the very fabric of the book and his life-long fascination and relationship with wildlife jumps off the pages. A very readable book that will give you a better understanding of the birds and their habitats.”

—Sophie Jewry

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