The Mighty Kestrel

 

 

My first ever bird of prey was a kestrel. I was about fifteen years old and fascinated by hawks of all kinds, so when a young kestrel was handed to me after it had obviously fallen out of a nest I was more than ready for the challenge. I trapped mice and starlings to feed it on and the lurchers were kept running through the nights to make sure there was always rabbit meat available. After spending weeks rearing him, re-reading every falconry book I could lay my hands on and then training him to come to food in the kitchen, it was time to fly him free outdoors. That’s when I lost him. In the local football field, early one summer’s morning before anyone was about, I flew him two or three times to the glove and on the last flight he simply drifted away, over the roofs of some houses and by the time I got around there he was gone, never to be seen again.

I had great plans for him too. I don’t know what we were going to hunt but we were going to venture forth every day after he was fully trained and hunt the local fields and quarries. In the wild kestrels catch mice, beetles, lizards and sometimes small birds. I am not sure which of these tasty morsels I was going to have a share in, but after having him around and then the absolutely gut wrenching feeling of losing him; I was even more determined to take up and master the art of falconry.

 

The Americans have a good system in place. To become a falconer you have to start as a novice and work your way up to master falconer. As a novice you are given the choice of flying an American kestrel or a Red-tailed hawk, and the trapping of your bird and the training is fully overseen by a master falconer. As far as I know, most American novices choose the Red-tail as their first bird; it is a large hawk found throughout most of their continent, but more importantly it is large enough and capable enough to catch edible prey
such as cotton-tails and jackrabbits. But the kestrel is every bit as much of a challenge for the novice to take on; the American kestrel is even smaller than ours but with careful training can hunt a variety of prey. The grasslands over there hold a host of small passerines that can be flushed underfoot or with the help of a dog and it is these that supply the sport for their little kestrels.

European kestrels are bigger and are, in my opinion, one of Europe’s prettiest birds of prey, second only to the small and beautiful red-footed falcon. Anyway, enough about looks, the last time I sat around chatting with a group of European falconers I swung the conversation around to get opinions on what people really thought of kestrels. Most of us had flown at least one in the past, most of us had only good thing to say about them from a falconry point of view, but all of us agreed that we had not pushed our little birds to the limit of their capabilities. One falconer, I think it was the chap that hunted wild and feral dogs with his golden eagle in southern Europe, swore to return home and get himself another kestrel to start working with straight away. 

 

When the film “Kes” hit the screens, a dramatization of the book ‘A kestrel for a knave”; a story of a boy that finds an injured kestrel and nurses it back to health and flies it on the hills around his English home, it created a major stir and the masses cried out to have a kestrel as a pet. At the time it was still legal for pet shops to sell hawks and the demand far outweighed the supply. Horror stories about people keeping kestrels in cages were commonplace and some authorities reckon that that one film killed more kestrels that all the motorways put together (kestrels often hunt along motorway verges for mice and lizards and are frequently hit by cars).

 

The old name for the kestrel (and a more descriptive one in my opinion),is the “Wind-hover”. It is the only species of native bird that can actually hover or stay in exactly the same position in the sky. It was recently discovered that kestrels can see in the ultra-violet spectrum. This is extremely useful while they are seeking out mice, as rodents do not have a sphincter; and so dribble urine all the time and leave an easily followed trail
wherever they go, easily followed if you can see in ultra-violet that is. That’s why kestrels can be seen hovering so much and forever changing theirposition; they are following ever freshening mouse urine until they find the little beast and drop from the sky to secure a tasty meal.

In the bird-watching book “Merlins of the Welsh Marches” the author is repeatedly amazed as he watches from his hide and sees the local kestrel snatch food again and again in front of the Merlins he is studying. This happens so often by this particular bird that he christened him Super-Kestrel and anyone that has watched a Merlin in action can understand that this is no mean feat.

Two things happened recently that led me to put pen to paper in regards to the little kestrel. One was when a fellow workmate came rushing up to me and recounted what he had seen the day before. “Our” local kestrel takes a lot of grief from the local crow population and is forever being hassled and rarely gets left in peace to search the grassy hills where I work. But on this occasion he must have taken enough. I was told in great detail how the kestrel repeatedly out-maneuvered the crow but still would not be left alone. The kestrel once again opened his wings and tail to catch the wind and gain height
but this time when he had the height advantage he folded his wings, went into a short fast stoop and hit the rook a smack on the head, causing the pestering corvid to go spinning to the ground where he was lost from view, so I never got to learn how badly the rook was hurt.

The other thing that happened recently was another friend of mine was sitting in his jeep on a land-fill site watching a mixed flock of jackdaws and magpies gathering to feed. He was working out his plan to approach them with his Harris Hawk when past his window in a sudden flash came a kestrel. Kestrels are a common sight on landfills but this one dived into the feeding crows, grabbed a magpie and just would not let him go. I asked him was he sure it wasn’t a Sparrowhawk (although the same size as kestrels, these raptors
commonly take magpies) but he assured me he had seen a kestrel not only catch, but had with every intent tried to kill a magpie, a bird as big as itself.

Both of these people are avid bird-watchers and both stories I firmly believe to be true.

So here’s to the under-rated and often ignored little wind-hover, cheers!

Tommy Byrne.

November 2008