K is for Kestrel
This beautiful (captive) European kestrel image was taken by Marcus Peaston on Flikr:
Kestrels are one of the most common birds of prey in the UK, and although they have adapted well to man-made environments, often seen hunting alongside roads, their numbers have declined a lot since the 70s.
This was thought to be mainly due to loss of hunting habitat and therefore prey, but new surveys are also pointing to changes in agricultural practice and use of rodenticides.
They have been included on the amber list of conservation importance.
Kestrels are not very large, only about 32 cm in length, and although they are not celebrated for their beauty, I think their feathers are wonderful, rich, soft brown, speckled with black markings. Their amber eyes, and beaks, are rimmed with yellow.
Kestrels hunt by using their extraordinarily keen eyes from a vantage point – either a high perch or by hovering into the wind.
Their eyes distinguish UV light and the urine of their prey shows clearly in UV – mice and voles leave a trail of urine wherever they go, and the kestrel knows that at the end of the trail of urine will be a small, unsuspecting mammal.
As soon as the trail stops, the kestrel falls with pinpoint accuracy towards the earth, snatching its prey in its strong talons.
On the photo above you can clearly see the notch in the kestrel’s upper beak, known as the tomial tooth, a sort of killing tooth – which it uses to quickly despatch its prey.
Here are two images by Borderslass on Flikr of a kestrel – the first of it diving:
And the second, of it having lifting its killed vole to take to a post to eat:
I have been lucky enough to have seen a kestrel in our garden, and even luckier to have seen the rarer merlin, sitting in our apple tree. It was even smaller than the kestrel, I thought it was a thrush at first.
One of the most wonderful poems about a kestrel is The Windhover (To Christ our Lord) by Gerard Manley-Hopkins. ‘Windhover’ is an archaic term for the kestrel. The poem is full of the wonderful rhythms of the wind-buffeted bird and exquisite imagery. Manley-Hopkins believed that all creatures were the embodiment of God.
I do not believe that, and neither does naturalist, nature photographer, TV presenter and author Chris Packham, but he shares my love of this poem, that epitomises the beauty of the bird, and also the bird itself, and was kind enough to do a reading of the poem for me.
Thank you to Chris Packham. If you have any land, please leave hedgerows in place for small creatures to hide in and get from field to field, try to leave parts of every field unploughed and planted.
Also, if you have a roadside property, leave your boundaries uncut, plant wildflowers instead of having mown lawn!
Use rat and mouse poison carefully and sparingly – if you have a rodent problem, a kestrel or other bird of prey will help you with that, without you having to use chemicals.
Here is my more modest Kestrel poem:
Though the vole
hides its swift,
has it spied;
its killing tooth
by the vole
that left its
as the shadow
its warm and
Kestrel Poem © Liz Brownlee
The Windhover by Gerard Manley-Hopkins
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