My Friend, Sor­rel

Polly Pullar tells us the touch­ing story of her time with a very spe­cial kestrel . .

The People's Friend Special - - CONTENTS -

Polly Pullar re­mem­bers a very spe­cial kestrel

MY first close en­counter with the beau­ti­ful kestrel was dur­ing my time at school, when a friend hand-reared an or­phan that had fallen from its cliff nest. It was a stun­ning lit­tle bird and to­gether, closely fol­low­ing a book that be­came a bi­ble to us, we trained it us­ing rudi­men­tary fal­conry tech­niques.

Even­tu­ally we were able to take it out on long walks to let it fly free be­fore call­ing it back with a tit­bit. We never man­aged to get it to catch any mice, though, as it was prob­a­bly too well fed. That charm­ing lit­tle bird made a big im­pres­sion on me, and I have adored kestrels ever since.

But the bird that was re­ally to leave its mark on me was the bedrag­gled and weak young kestrel that ap­peared in the field in front of the farm one morn­ing two weeks af­ter my fa­ther had trag­i­cally taken his own life.

I had just got up and was open­ing the cur­tains and look­ing out into the field in front of the house won­der­ing how on earth I could face another day, when I saw the bird.

One of the ewes was in­ves­ti­gat­ing it with her nose and it was not mov­ing away. By the time I had dressed it was still in ex­actly the same spot. I moved closer and was amazed that I was able to pick it straight up with­out any prob­lem. It was clearly in dire straits.

It re­cov­ered well and took food read­ily, but seemed so tame. That small fal­con, as with so many other crea­tures that have punc­tu­ated my world, was largely re­spon­si­ble for get­ting me through what was a dev­as­tat­ing pe­riod of my life. I be­came to­tally ab­sorbed in its care and well­be­ing, and loved it with a pas­sion.

It was a young male from that sea­son and he be­came very much part of the fam­ily, came ev­ery­where with me, and re­sponded well to train­ing.

He loved the car; we made a spe­cial perch at­tach­ment for the back seat and he sat bob­bing his head about look­ing at ev­ery­thing in­tently as we drove along.

He got used to the col­lies, though we al­ways had to take care as ac­ci­dents so easily hap­pen. They were well warned, and be­ing in­tel­li­gent dogs, took note! I called him Sor­rel but it was not un­til he moulted out his ju­ve­nile plumage and new adult feath­ers grew in that we saw

it was in­deed a male.

He quickly be­gan to de­velop a blue-grey hue to his head feath­ers, and the same dis­tinc­tive slate-coloured tail. Fe­males and ju­ve­niles have barred tails and lack the blue tinge on their heads.

IT has been over 30 years since then, but I have been think­ing a great deal about Sor­rel, for re­cently I col­lected a pa­thetic kestrel that was trapped in­side a ware­house at Aber­feldy Dis­tillery.

It must have been there for a while as it was al­most starved to death. It was lighter than a feather and was barely breath­ing. I held out lit­tle hope for it but thought I would try my usual tech­niques for re­vival – and they worked.

Af­ter less than a day the bird was on its feet and eat­ing fresh mice, but then af­ter three days, I found it dead in the box. It had ob­vi­ously be­come so low that tak­ing food again was just too much for its sys­tem.

So I be­gan to think back to Sor­rel and have en­joyed read­ing my de­tailed di­aries and look­ing at the pho­to­graphs of that won­der­ful lit­tle char­ac­ter.

I had him for six years and used to put him out in the gar­den. A fe­male kestrel ap­peared al­most daily, and not only stole his food, but also flirted out­ra­geously with him. I loved watch­ing the two of them to­gether, but I was scared to let him go.

Di­ary en­tries show that I had a huge bat­tle with my­self over this be­cause on the one hand I felt it would have been the best thing for him, but on the other, I wor­ried he might not be able to sur­vive in the wild.

Even­tu­ally fate played its hand and I was asked to take on a fe­male kestrel that had pre­vi­ously bro­ken a wing. Though it had mended she could not fly well.

We put the pair of them in an aviary and amaz­ingly they bonded very quickly. In spring she laid four eggs. We were so ex­cited.

Odd things hap­pen and one morn­ing I was care­less with feed­ing the kestrels and Sor­rel shot out of the open aviary door.

My di­ary en­try reads: Had a dis­as­ter with Sor­rel – he es­caped and flew out of his aviary. I stood help­lessly watch­ing him soar­ing high into the blue eter­nity, and then he landed back on to a fence post by the road­side and sat bob­bing his head, and look­ing all around him. I was over­whelmed with ex­cite­ment to see him fly­ing so well but up­set at the same time – very up­set. He then spent ages swoop­ing and soar­ing, and was joined by another male kestrel and seemed to be shriek­ing with de­light. Af­ter five years of cap­tiv­ity I won­der if he feels a bliss­ful sense of free­dom? Sadly his eggs did not hatch out. I saw him on a reg­u­lar ba­sis hang­ing about the farm and left food out for him. He of­ten came and took it. Then he van­ished. We feared the worst. Then eight months later he turned up again – we knew it was Sor­rel be­cause we could see the ring and the leather an­klets on his legs. He had sur­vived the win­ter and was still go­ing strong. I was so thrilled that I burst into tears.

One of the most poignant and con­cern­ing is­sues is that my bird record book of three decades ago is ab­so­lutely full of the ar­rivals of in­jured kestrels dur­ing that time.

They were pre­vi­ously so nu­mer­ous that they of­ten came to grief and were brought to me – most sur­vived, as for their size they are feisty, and do not ap­pear to get as stressed in cap­tiv­ity as other birds of prey.

Fre­quently seen hov­er­ing by mo­tor­way verges, like barn owls they all too of­ten get sucked in by the slip­stream of pass­ing ve­hi­cles and come to grief.

Now re­ceiv­ing a kestrel is a real rar­ity. There are so few left; I have no­ticed a dra­mat­i­cally wor­ry­ing drop in num­bers. Loss of habi­tat and busy roads, pes­ti­cides and poi­sons, and prob­a­bly per­se­cu­tion, have dec­i­mated this species that was once so nu­mer­ous.

Mod­ern agri­cul­ture is thought to be a huge fac­tor in the loss of our pre­cious kestrel. I mourn their demise for they are one of the most beau­ti­ful Bri­tish birds and cause no harm, feed­ing on a diet largely con­sist­ing of voles and other small mam­mals.

Nick­named “Wind­hover” be­cause of their el­e­gant way of hang­ing mo­tion­less in the air spy­ing prey far be­low, in some ar­eas they are also re­ferred to as “mouse hawk”, though they are in fact fal­cons, mean­ing that they have longer wings than hawks and adopt a dif­fer­ent form of hunt­ing tech­nique. The Or­ca­di­ans call them “Wind Cuf­fer”, while the Shet­landers use the word “Maalin”.

When we lived in a lit­tle cot­tage near Fet­ter­cairn, we had a walk­way up above the kitchen open to the roof, and Sor­rel used to perch up there for hours on one of the beams, bob­bing his head and watch­ing life go­ing on be­low. One night we had friends for din­ner and the party was very merry.

I to­tally for­got to put him away and in the mid­dle of din­ner there was a splash, and a feather that dropped right on to the side plate of one of my friends. He knew me well and was not that sur­prised.

“Good­ness, Polly!” he ex­claimed, “is that what is meant by pen­nies from heaven?”

I still gig­gle think­ing of that happy mem­ory.

Look­ing fine amongst the au­tumn fo­liage.

The very best of friends.

Kestrels can also see ul­tra-vi­o­let light.

Sor­rel cap­tured

in pen­cil.

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