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