Kestrel Kindergarten

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Many years ago, when I first moved to France, I bought and started to renovate a two-hundred-year-old house that had been abandoned for decades.

The crooked stone walls and giant oak beams soon began to test both my skills and my fragile relationship with my bank manager. When offered a day a week of gardening work at a nearby manor house, I jumped at the possibility of reversing the outward flow of cash from my bank account.

Within a week, the elderly couple that owned the estate had persuaded me to up my duties from one day a week to two by bribing me with a substantial pay rise. Corruption coursed deeply through my veins.

Nearly Twenty Years Later I Am Still There

The couple has both passed away now, and the inheritors have kept me, deciding what to do with the immense property they suddenly find themselves owning.

When the husband passed away, my wife and I moved into an apartment on the estate only to take care of the wife of the deceased, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

That was when I started to become closely acquainted with the local kestrels.

Successive generations of these birds had been living on the property since long before my time there. I was aware that in every breeding season, they nested on the windowsill of a bull’s eye window, just below the roof of the three-story building.

From there, they had a view straight out across a long valley, and they could drop effortlessly over the treetops and start hunting as and when it suited them.

The only person who disturbed their peaceful existence was me, and when they were sitting on eggs or rearing their young, I just let that end of the property grow wild to minimize the alarm I caused.

The Kestrels

Kestrels are small birds, and the males weigh between just five and nine ounces while the female gets a little heavier.

They are fond of voles, and there are plenty of those in the valley that they watch over. A vole reaches sexual maturity at just one month, and a pair can comfortably produce a hundred offspring over a year. They are sometimes referred to as meadow mice though they are not mice at all.

Kestrels have two tactical advantages when it comes to hunting these creatures.

They can hover in one position using a method called wind-hovering, and they can see near ultra-violet light.

Voles leave ultra-violet tracks when they pee. As they are quite careless about peeing right outside their front doors, this makes hunting them relatively easy.

Those birds I was familiar with preferred a slightly more varied diet.

Occasionally, at the bird feeder, I stock so diligently, there would be a lightning-fast strike, and an explosion of feathers as one of the local blue tits met an untimely end.

The bird comes in like a bullet and doesn’t even stop after snatching its unfortunate victim.

The Kindergarten

While living in the apartment, I first saw the female kestrel start encouraging her chicks to fly. Like many loving parents, they reach a point where they feel it is time for the kids to leave home and find a place of their own.

With regular fresh meals delivered right to their doorstep, the kids in this instance were in no hurry to move on. The fact that there was a drop of forty or fifty-foot right below them didn’t help matters much either.

To speed the departure process, the mother would capture a vole and then land on the horizontal apex of the large barn opposite. It would quickly elicit high pitched cries from the chicks, no doubt pointing out to mom that she was delivering to the wrong address.

Ignoring their cries, mom would start tearing the small rodent to pieces and slowly eating it herself. She wouldn’t exactly lick her lips, but she appeared to be doing whatever the kestrel equivalent of that was.

Two or three little heads would poke out from the side of the windowsill, glance at mom, look cautiously down at the drop below and then hastily disappear again.

Eventually, the bravest of the chicks would pluck up the courage to try to reach mom. That first flight was never the effortless swooping glide that the adults left the nest with.

It was more of a drunken, flapping affair that one might expect from a chicken than a raptor.

Defying Gravity With Hope

Generally, the youngster would make it to the barn roof, but unfamiliar with the laws of gravity, it would land on the pitch rather than the horizontal ridge.

From there, it would start an undignified slide down the steep slate tiles. If it were lucky, it would kick off and glide to another perch. If not, it would face a humiliating crash into the gutter to which it would cling desperately to regain its breath and courage.

Quite how the kestrels know when it is time for their brood to fly from the nest is difficult to tell. But inevitably, the youngsters are flying perfectly within a couple of days of those first punitive efforts.

Kestrels get their name from the French word ‘crécerelle’ — which is the word for a child’s rattle, and in turn, gets its name from the word ‘crécelle’ — which was the bell once carried by lepers to warn people of their approach.

The kee-kee-kee call of the raptor sounded very similar. In the mid 20th century, their numbers were badly dented, due to the widespread use of organochlorines in pesticides.

Today their numbers have bounced back to healthy levels due to their ability to live in close harmony with humans, and they are widespread throughout most of Europe.

They don’t build their nests but will happily lay their eggs on ledges of apartment buildings, beneath bridges and, just occasionally, on high windowsills overlooking wide-open valleys.

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