I remember sitting under a tree. A Willow drooping low over a sheltered bend on a slow river, watching a Kestrel. Weaving and dipping across open country, beyond the trees along the river bank.
Sometimes rising to hover briefly, before curving gracefully away, mobbed all the time by other smaller birds.
The time I am to write about I always remember as a time of light and warmth. Perhaps it was an especially hot summer, it seems likely. Sometime between then and now I would call this hackneyed. But then and in defence, it does as far as I know truly reflect the situation.
I was that kind of person in those days. Note that I hesitate to use the word romantic being I suppose, aware of unfortunate connotations. To write about that time I must be mindful of how I viewed my existence then. This scene is only classic therefore because so is how I felt.
I enjoyed the feeling of general tightness, unease, unknowing. That I was, in my own view, on the verge. I was of that turn of mind.
I choose, and now re-choose this place because of just that. Simply it was one of my favourite places. Now think what you wish, I have no more need to be defensive.
Four small children brought me my first bird. A Tiercel Kestrel, maybe in its first or second year. They said they found it under a tree by the river.
“Oy, look what we got”, they shouted, holding up an unrecognisable bundle for me to see. Curious I walked across.
His young captor was holding him tightly in a padded anorak, at arms length, obviously more than a little frightened of his charge.
He held the bird timidly, transmitting his fear, as if this seemingly crazed and lunatic creature was some particularly violent pot fowl, refusing to come to death until all had suffered with him.
The bird had obviously been bating, violently. The children were tired, wanting rid of this troublesome creature, this malevolent brown demon. I was the obvious person to take the bird from their rather tender hands. I was the boy who liked birds.
Guilt amongst the group was almost a tangible thing. Normally raggy arsed and mischievous, they were now subdued, quietly watching their captive. The prisoner it seemed had turned the tables.
Through tactful questioning I found out the full story of the capture.
The bird had, apparently, been sitting on a favourite observation post. A telegraph pole, (to judge by the droppings, I looked later), when discovered by the children. In strange fun, to break the normal monotony of the school holidays, they began throwing stones. To frighten him, no more. Someone then, had the bright idea of throwing a salvo, never thinking any would hit. A small stone hit him, stunning and knocking him from his perch.
My first full sight of him was of a terrified bundle of bloody wet feathers with an obvious and painful looking fleshy stain on the leading edge of one wing, caused by the fall I presumed. I said I would take him and promising, somewhat reluctantly, not to say anything, I gathered up this madly desperate captive for the first time, he baited.
Once rid, the children disappeared, doubtless to find some equally harmless pastime to while away the summer hours. Perhaps to look for a second brood nest or maybe to build yet another raft on the many ponds and pits in the area. Obeying parental instructions to stay out of the way.
They left me to examine my new possession for the first time.
Attempting to judge the full extent of his injuries.
I found, when I got him home to the garden shed, not of course telling my parents, that a couple of primaries had been broken, together with one feather in his tail. All this taken together with a nasty looking wound on the wing joint meant that flying was out for at least a season, if not for ever.
I could see, even after a cursory glance, that even with skilful care, (skill I did not have), and with extensive imping; that is the inserting of lightweight needles into the cleaned end of the damaged feather and the grafting on of the new undamaged feather, it would take some time for the injured tissue to heal.
All I could hope, that in nursing common sense, would, for the moment suffice.
I needed information, so my next step was to raid the Library.
Although the Kestrel is little more than useless as a true Falconers bird (it is too small when hunting for the pot, the primary function of a working bird. The largest prey animal is a Vole), it nevertheless is a true Falcon, ‘Falco Tinunnculus’, and good so said my book, for beginners.
So, following closely my archaic and inadequate references, I attempted to ‘man’ him, after first naming him Cully.
“So might I, have glimpses that would make me less forlorn”
That first night I watched him for hours, fascinated. Never looking directly at him but always past. My concentration directed at the shadows cast upon the wooden shed wall by a single candle flame.
When cleaned he was transformed, imperious. This aristocratic prisoner regarding all around him with baleful eye. To dark spheres in cadmium flashing fiercely aflame.
I managed to stop the flow of blood from his wing and bind the damaged pinion close to his body. This was all I could do. I hoped, irrationally that he wouldn’t become irritated by the binding and attempt to remove it. He was certainly weak but he still managed a bate of angry defiance.
A curved steel black beak bordered with bright yellow cere like some slipped dandy’s mask. A chestnut brown back, flecked with half diamond umber. A lighter underside again darkly speckled and a long slightly tapered tail, dipped as if accidentally in black.
He was a raggy urchin and yet a true one. A perfected flying shape. Tapered pointed wings, the trade mark of a true Falcon and counter balanced tail that fanned when in hovering flight. Manley Hopkins Windhover.
Once when in Ireland on holiday as a boy, I had seen a horse broken with cruelty. Bludgeoned into submission with a thick canvas and leather saddle strap. The horse had for most of its life lived on a small Atlantic island with the rest of a scrawny ill kept herd. It had been allowed relative freedom for a couple of years and in that time had become something of an ill tempered brute. My friends and I had developed a healthy respect for its teeth and feet.
I remember sitting on a dry stone wall, above a sea cliff, high above the Atlantic breakers and wondering the why of it all.
Two strong men held it on a tight rein, head between splayed legs whilst another hit it across the back with the strap. In short, it was whipped into submission. I watched it rear and plunge, biting on eventually more than air, mouth flowing with pink froth. Sometimes it would break into the dry stone wall above the cliff. Eventually it seemed to calm. One of the men bit its ear, drawing even more blood. It made one last plunge gave one last scream and violently breaking free it leapt the wall.
I mentioned this for various reasons. We soon realise when training any animal that the object of our abnormal affections can and soon does develop as many subtle neurosis as any human would when forced into an apparently untenable situation. Cruelty is one of the best ways of developing these.
I manned Cully, that is, I attempted to get him to trust me. To regard my fist, first and foremost as his natural perch and me as his only source of food.
All this without sublimating his very necessary hunting instincts. He would be developing himself naturally. He would be honed, like the finest steel, as the most beautiful sword, naive if you like.
During the first stage of manning you allow the bird to become accustomed to his surroundings. But in its own good time. This essential technique has changed little since Falconry was brought back from the Middle East by the Crusaders. It has been modernised of course but like a number of things not always for the better.
My technique involved walking around with the bird, doing as many every day things as possible. “Waking” him until, primitive caution overcome he would relax enough to sleep on the fist. It is all a question of trust.
So I read and re-read to keep myself awake.
It is a strange thing waiting at night. The outside is quiet. Perhaps there is a still steady roar from far away traffic heard through an open window. Insects invade the room, searching for escape as soon as they enter. Dying in the source of the light that so fatally attracts them. One becomes lost, talking to the bird all of dreams and hopes. Talking about the heat again. Muggy and dirty, the dark is like treacle. Bats newly wakened would hawk for those same insects just outside the window, Cully would watch.
The ground outside strangely lighter than the sky although the sky was full of stars. There was a fine soft mist over the water in the Valley. Somehow that just made it hotter.
“If you have managed to wake him for two nights running and his perch or block during the daytime (when you have not been carrying him around) has been in a place exposed to general view, he should be fairly used to you. He many not allow any liberties, but at least he will stand quiet on the fist until sent into a bait by someone or something.”
I walked and talked to him all day and all night until finally, hopefully, he would sleep. So many times it was a vain hope. He would close his eyes for a few moments only to open them again at the slightest sound. Sitting, standing, walking, arm falling off, so often wishing him sleep.
Showing him his world, walking the baby around the house. Showing him everything in it. Teaching him a language. This is a tree, this is a radio, this is a flower. One transparent membrane would flick upwards, one eyelid would droop, followed by the other. I would sigh and two baleful black eyes would peer out at me.
A thousand times this would happen. He would sleep for a few moments only to wake again suddenly at the slightest movement, bating violently from my fist. I would pick him up carefully and gently as he hung angry and fearful from his Jesses.
I fitted up a screen perch, so if for any reason he was startled during the night and bated, he could scramble up a screen of rough hessian when brought up short.
His Jesses I made from the strap from my binoculars and his creance or leash was rough string. Not ideal but in the circumstances the best I could do.
I was in my early teens at this time and I had problems other than the psychotic antics of this feathered devil besetting me. Things were far from being stable or pleasant for me. I have never had an easy temper and Cully was never one to inspire patience. This was something required in great quantity, I discovered when training this particular hawk. The patience of a Saint, which was the Falconer’s Patron I had no idea.
The Falcon, even lowly tinnunculus, is an avian thoroughbred. A very highly strung, specialist animal. The poorest of these aristocrats is still the most truculent of creatures.
As with most things, given some little hindsight, we find our actions ultimately ludicrous. If I considered my course of action during those first months I doubt Cully and I would have survived the first few rather large hurdles. I made a lot of cringe worthy mistakes.
But I persevered, half the time not realising I had made a mistake. In fact most of it was a series of blunders, rather than a definite course of action. Still it appeared to work well enough.
Cully and I took long silent walks across the fields in the early morning when the air was crisp and winter trees etched fine black lines across a frosty blue sky. Lapwings would tape like some great dark Chinese Serpent across the top of the trees, screaming at the sight of us like a market full of fishwives. Poor, befuddled minds in perpetual blind panic.
He would sometimes watch them as they spiralled to a landing besides the lake. At other times he would, with almost disdainful eye, watch the herons. The prey of his more regal cousin, the Peregrine. The beautiful bird of the sudden stoop. Whereas Cully in pursuit of his prey was the hanger on the wind.
Hanging on the wind, waiting, perhaps the odd change in the angle of the tail, otherwise motionless. Waiting for something, anything, from a small mammal to a beetle. A cosmopolitan bird is tinnunculus. Then the sudden and unexpected dive from 40’ or so, a pause at 20’, a short hover, one sudden wing beat, a change in aerodynamic shape, a flick of the wings and the bird drives head first into the ground, turning up only at the last moment, talons extended.
The first time I saw him make a kill, it was totally unexpected. The Kestrel’s main prey is small rodents and the like. Certainly nothing suitable for the pot and so this commonest of all true Falcons is useless as a Falconers bird. Suitable only for the training of the inexperienced. I suppose looked at critically, the best thing that could be said about this haunter of the motorway edge is that they make quite good pets. They cannot be trained to hunt specifically for anything, not even a lowly vole.
So, to see Cully kill anything, even once, must I suppose be seen as a singular honour.
The only thing lower than a Kestrel on a Falconers list is a Buzzard. This is because, strangely for such a regal looking bird, they are branded cowards and carrion eaters to boot. There is always a danger in anthropomorphosizing animals. But the only thing a Buzzard can do is look regal and even that not very well. Look at the bird’s feet. Carrion bird’s feet are always small and featherless.
So I became privy to this rather singular honour one day when Cully and I were walking through the small wood near to the house. We were passing rather laboriously through a stand of high bracken when suddenly Cully exploded from my wrist. Terrified of hurting him I let go the Jesses.
He flew rather clumsily down to the ground. I had read of the fits that hawks are prone to and my first conclusion was instant as he lay there wings caught in the broken stalks. I crept slowly towards him, suffering agonies every time I caused unexpected noise. Suddenly he raised himself and flew into the branches of a nearby Oak. Hell I thought, now I have lost him.
Then he was down. I caught sight of a brief brown flash between tree and ground. Ignoring noise and scratches now, I pushed through the undergrowth towards him.
Underneath every tree in the wood was a small clear area of verdant pasture. Cully was in the middle of one of these, under the Oak. He was clawing down a small shrew. It stared out, shocked into immobility. Little pin prick blackcurrant eyes. Almost as if in play, Cully mantled it instinctively with his wings and tore off its pointed twitching head.
Things motionless were felt to move
Downward the hedges crawled
Down steep sun molten banks to where
The shrunken river sprawled
Dark cloud ravines of shadow flowed
Sheer down the dark woods cliff
Drapes heavily in the golden heat
The limbs of air fell still
And threatening doom, the sky’s concentrated will
Hung in one black speck, poised above the hill.<< New text box >>