The Kestrel
 Morris's British Birds 1891
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Image Title: Kestrel
Description: Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

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Falco tinnunculus, MONTAGU. SELBY. Accipiter alaudarius, BRISSON.
Falco—To cut with a bill or hook.
Tinnunculus, Conjectured from Tinnio—To chirp. (From the peculiar note of the bird.)

This species is in my opinion, not only, as it is usually described to be, one of the commonest, but the commonest of the British species of Hawks. It is found in all parts of Europe—Denmark, France, Italy, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Lapland, Finland, the Ferroo Islands, Greece, and Switzerland; and also in Asia, in Arabia, Persia, Palestine, Bokhara, China, and Siberia; in Northern, Western, and Central Africa, Abyssinia, Soudan, Senegambia, Morocco, Algeria, Tripoli, and at the Cape of Good Hope; also in Ceylon and the Seychelles on the one side, and in the Cape de Verd Islands, the Azores, the Canary Islands, and Madeira on the other; so too, according to Meyer, in America. It is easily reclaimed, and was taught to capture larks, snipes, and young partridges. It becomes very familiar when tamed, and will live on terms of perfect amity with other small birds, its companions. One of its kind formed, and perhaps still forms, one of the so-called 'Happy Family,' to be seen, or which was lately to be seen, in London. The Kestrel has frequently been taken by its pursuing small birds into a room or building. It does infinitely more good than harm, if indeed it does any harm at all, and its stolid destruction by gamekeepers and others is much to be lamented, and should be deprecated by all who are able to interfere for the preservation of a bird which is an ornament to the country.
These birds appear to be of a pugnacious disposition. J. W. G. Spicer, Esq., of Esher Place, Surrey, writing in the 'Zoologist,' pages 654-5, says, 'all of a sudden, from two trees near me, and about fifty yards apart, two Hawks rushed simultaneously at each other, and began fighting most furiously, screaming and tumbling over and over in the air. I fired and shot them both, and they were so firmly grappled together by their talons, that I could hardly separate them, though dead. They were both hen Kestrels.
What could have been the sudden cause of their rage? It was autumn, and therefore they had no nests.' In the next article, the following is recorded by Mr. W. Peachey, of Northchapel, near Petworth, 'a few weeks ago, a man passing a tree, heard a screaming from a nest at the top. Having climbed the tree and put his hand into the nest, he seized a bird which proved to be a Kestrel; and at the same instant a Magpie flew out on the other side. The Kestrel, it appears, had the advantage in being uppermost, and would probably have vanquished his adversary, had he not been thus unexpectedly taken.' Two instances are related by the late Frederick Holme, Esq., of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, the one of a male Kestrel having eaten the body of its partner, which had been shot, and hung in the branch of a tree—'a piece of conjugal cannibalism somewhat at variance with the proverb that 'hawks don't poke out hawks' een;' and the other, as a set off, he says, of 'six of one and half-a-dozen of the other,' a pair of Kestrels in confinement having been left without their supper, the male was killed and eaten by the female before morning.'
In Yorkshire, the Kestrel is a common bird, as in most parts of England. In Cornwall it appears to be rare. One, a male, was shot, Mr. Cocks has informed me, at Trevissom, in January, 1850, by Master Reed; and others at Penzance and Swanpool, in 1846. In Scotland it is likewise generally distributed. In Ireland it is also common throughout the island.
The debateable point respecting the natural history of the Kestrel, is whether it is migratory or not. Much has been written on both sides of this 'vexata quaestio;' and as much, or more, one may take upon oneself to say, will yet be written on the subject. My own opinion is against the idea of any migration of the bird beyond the bounds of this country. Stress has been laid, in an argument in favour of such a supposed movement, on the fact of the departure of the broods of young Kestrels from the scene of their birth. But who could expect them to remain in any one confined locality? Brood upon brood would thus acumulate, in even more than what Mr. Thornhill in the 'Vicar of Wakefield,' calls a 'reciprocal duplicate ratio;' a 'concatenation of self-existences' which would doubtless soon find a lack of the means of subsistence in a neighbourhood calculated probably to afford sufficient food for only a few pairs. Unless in the case of the Osprey, which must be admitted from the nature of its prey brought together in vast profusion at the same period of time, to be an exceptional one, I am not aware of any Hawks which build in company in the same way that Rooks do: I have never yet heard of a Kestrelry. The fact of the dispersion of the young birds is nothing more than might, from the nature of their habit of life, be looked for. Their very parents may expel them, as is the case with other birds of the same tribe. They have come together from roaming over the face of the country, to some situation suitable for them to build in, and a like dispersion of their offspring is the natural course of things. As to any total, or almost total disappearance of the species in winter, it is most certainly not the general fact, whatever may appear to be the case in any particular locality or localities. The only one I ever shot, the brightest-coloured specimen, by the way, I ever saw, was in the depth of winter, and it fell, on the same day as did the Merlin which I have spoken of as having had the misfortune to come across my path, upon snow-covered ground, with its beautiful wings stretched out, for the last time poor bird. In the parts of Yorkshire in which I have lived, the county with reference to which the observations I have alluded to have been made, and I have lived in all three Ridings, though my assertion at present applies to the East only, I have never observed any diminution in the number of Kestrels that are seen in the winter, from those which are to be seen in summer hovering over the open fields. It would seem very possible, from the different observations that have been made, that they may make some partial migrations in quest of a better supply of food, or for some other reason known only to themselves.
Still after what I have said, I must not be understood as unhesitatingly asserting that none of our British born and bred Kestrels cross the sea to foreign parts. It would be presumptuous in any one to hazard such an assertion: in this, as in most other supposed matters of fact, our ignorance leaves but too abundant room for difference of opinion. 'There be three things,' says Solomon, 'which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not;' and one of these he declares to be 'the way of an Eagle in the air.' We need not be ashamed of keeping company with him in a candid confession of our own short-sightedness.
Since writing the above, I find that Mr. Macgillivray remarks that in the districts bordering on the Frith of Forth, these birds are more numerous in the winter than in the summer, and he adds that probably 'like the Merlin, this species merely migrates from the interior to the coast.' And 'in the north of Ireland, generally,' says Mr. Thompson, 'Kestrels seem to be quite as numerous in winter as in summer, in their usual haunts.'
The Kestrel begins to feed at a very early hour of the morning. It has been known to do so even almost before it was light. Several others of this family, as I have before had occasion to observe, continue the pursuit of their prey until a correspondingly late hour in the evening.
Other species of Hawk may be seen hovering in a fixed position in the air, for a brief space, the Common Buzzard for instance, but most certainly the action, as performed by the Kestrel, is both peculiar to and characteristic of itself alone, in this kingdom at least. No one who has lived in the country can have failed to have often seen it suspended in the air, fixed, as it were, to one spot, supported by its out-spread tail, and by a quivering play of the wings, more or less perceptible.
It has been asserted that the Kestrel never hovers at a greater height from the ground than forty feet, but this is altogether a mistake. The very last specimen that I have seen thus poised, which was about a fortnight since, in Worcestershire, seemed to me as near as I could calculate its altitude, to be at an elevation of a hundred yards from the ground. I mean, of course, at its first balancing itself, for down, as the species is so often seen to do, it presently stooped, and then halted again, like Mahomet's coffin, between sky and earth, then downwards again it settled, and then yet once again, and then glided off—the prey it had aimed at having probably gone under cover of some sort: otherwise it would have dropped at last like a stone upon it, if an animal very probably fascinated, aud borne it off immediately for its meal. It is a bird of considerable powers of flight. Tame Kestrels, kept by Mr. John Atkinson, of Leeds, having had their wings cut to prevent their escape, exhibited, he says, great adroitness in climbing trees.
The food of the Kestrel consists of the smaller animals, such as field mice, and the larger insects, such, namely, as grasshoppers, beetles, and caterpillars: occasionally it will seize and destroy a wounded partridge, but when seen hovering over the fields in the peculiar and elegant manner, so well illustrated by my friend the Rev. R. P. Alington in the engraving which is the accompaniment of this description, and from which the bird derives one of its vernacular names, it is, for the most part, about to drop upon an insect. Small birds, such as sparrows, larks, chaffinches, blackbirds, linnets, and goldfinches, frequently form part of its food, but one in confinement, while it would eat any of these, invariably refused thrushes; one, however, has been seen, after a severe struggle to carry off a mistletoe thrush. The larvse of water insects have also been known to have been fed on by them, and in one instance a leveret, or young rabbit, and in another a rat. Slow-worms, frogs, and lizards are often articles of their food, as also earth-worms, and A. E. Knox, Esq. possesses one shot in Sussex in the act of killing a large adder. Thirteen whole lizards have been found in the body of one. Another has been seen devouring a crab, and another, a tame one, the result doubtless of its education, as man has been defined to be 'a cooking animal,' a hot roasted pigeon. 'De gustibus non disputandum.'
'The Kestre,' says the late Bishop Stanley, 'has been known to dart upon a weasel, an animal nearly its equal in size and weight, and actually mount aloft with it. As in the case of the Eagle, it suffered for its temerity, for it had not proceeded far when both were observed to fall from a considerable height. The weasel ran off unhurt, but the Kestrel was found to have been killed by a bite in the throat.''
He adds also, 'Not long ago some boys observed a Hawk flying after a Jay, which on reaching, it immediately attacked, and both fell on a stubble field, where the contest appeared to be carried on; the boys hastened up, but too late to save the poor Jay, which was at the last gasp; in the agonies of death, however, it had contrived to infix and entangle its claws so firmly in the Hawk's feathers, that the latter unable to escape, was carried off by the boys, who brought it home, when on examination it proved to be a Kestrel.' The Windhover has often been known to pounce on the decoy-birds of bird-catchers, and has in his turn been therefore entrapped by them, in prevention of future losses of the same kind. It has also been seen to seize and devour cockchaffers while on the wing. When the female is sitting the male brings her food; she hears his shrill call to her on his return, flies out to meet him, and receives the prey from him in the air.
It is a curious fact that notwithstanding their preying on small birds, the latter will sometimes remain in the trees in which they are, without any sign of terror or alarm. They have been known to carry off young chickens and pigeons. When feeding on insects which are of light weight, they devour them in the air, and have been seen to take a cockchaffer in each claw. Bewick says that the Kestrel swallows mice whole, and ejects the hair afterwards from its mouth, in round pellets—the habit of the other Hawks. Buffon relates that 'when it has seized and carried off a bird, it kills it, and plucks it very neatly before eating it. It does not take so much trouble with mice, for it swallows the smaller whole, and tears the others to pieces. The skin is rolled up so as to form a little pellet, which it ejects from the mouth. On putting these pellets into hot water tosoften and unravel them, you find the entire skin of the mouse, as if it had been flayed.' This, however, is said by Mr. Macgillivray never to be the case, but that the skin is always in pieces. Probably in some instances there may be foundation for the assertion of the Count, but only as exceptions to the general rule.
Meyer observes, which every one who has seen the bird will confirm, as frequently, though not always the case, that 'when engaged in searching for its food, it will suffer the very near approach of an observer without shewing any alarm or desisting from its employment, and continue at the elevation of a few yards from the ground, with out-spread tail, and stationary, except the occasional tremulous flickering of its wings; then as if suddenly losing sight of the object of its search, it wheels about, and shifts its position, and is again presently seen at a distance, suspended and hovering in the same anxious search/ In the ardour of the chase, the Windhover has been known to drive a lark into the inside of a coach as it was travelling along; and another to brush against a person's head, in dashing at a sparrow which was flitting in a state of bewildered entrancement in a myrtle bush. Mr. Thompson mentions his having seen a Kestrel after a long and close chase of a swallow through all its turns and twists, become in its turn pursued by the same individual bird. They are often followed and teased by several small birds together, as well as by Rooks, as hereafter to be mentioned when treating of the latter bird.
The following curious circumstance is thus pleasingly related by the Rev. W. Turner, of Uppingham, in the 'Zoologist,' pages 2296-7:—'In the summer of 1847 two young Kestrels were reared from the nest, and proved to be male and female: they were kept in a commodious domicile built for them in an open yard, where they lived a life of luxury and ease. This summer a young one of the same species was brought and put into the same apartment; and, strange to say, the female Kestrel, sensible (as we suppose) of the helpless condition of the new-comer, immediately took it under her protection. As it was too infantine to perch, she kept it in one corner of the cage, and for several days seldom quitted its side; she tore in pieces the food given to her, and assiduously fed her young charge, exhibiting as much anxiety and alarm for its safety, as its real parent could have done. But what struck me as very remarkable, she would not allow the male bird, with whom she lived on the happiest terms, to come near the young one. As the little stranger increased in strength and intelligence, her attentions and alarm appeared gradually to subside, but she never abandoned her charge, and its sleek and glossy appearance afforded ample proof that it had been well cared for. The three are now as happy as confined birds can be.'
In the same magazine the late Frederick Holme, Esq., of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, records that a nest of this species was observed to have been begun near that city; a trap was set, and five male birds were caught on successive days, without the occurrence of a single female; the last of them ' being a young bird of the year in complete female plumage.' Again, at page 2765, the Rev. Henry R. Crewe, of Breadsall Rectory, Derbyshire, relates the following pleasing anecdote :— 'About four years ago, my children procured a young Kestrel, which,, when able to fly, I persuaded them to give its liberty; it never left the place, but became attached to them. In the spring of the following year we missed him for nearly a week, and thought he had been shot; but one morning I observed him soaring about with another of his species, which proved to be a female. They paired and laid several eggs in an old dove-cote, about a hundred yards from the Rectory; but being disturbed that season, as I thought, by some White Owls, the eggs were never hatched. The next spring he again brought a mate : they again built, and reared a nest of young ones. Last year they did the same; but some mischievous boys took the young ones when just ready to fly. Though in every respect a wild bird as to his habits in the fields, he comes every day to the nursery window, and when it is opened, will come into the room and perch upon the chairs or table, and sometimes upon the heads of the little ones, who always save a piece of meat for him. His mate will sometimes venture to come within a yard or two of the house, to watch for him when he comes out of the room with his meat; she will then give chase, and try to make him drop it, both of them squealing and chattering to our great amusement. The male never leaves us; indeed he is so attached to the children, that if we leave home for a time he is seldom seen; but as soon as we return, and he hears the voices of his little friends calling him by name, he comes flying over the fields, squealing with joy to see them again. He is now so well known amongst the feathered tribes of the neighbourhood, that they take no notice of him, but will sit upon the same tree with him: even the Rooks appear quite friendly.'
The note of the Windhover is clear, shrill, and rather loud, and is rendered by Buffon by the words 'pli, pli, pli,' or 'pri, pri, pri.' It is several times repeated, but is not often heard except near its station, and that in the spring.
I am indebted to my obliging friend, the Rev. J. W. Bower, of Barmston, in the East-Riding, for the first record that I am aware of of the breeding of the Kestrel in confinement. The following is an extract from his letter dated November 30th., 1849, relating the circumstance:—'A pair of Kestrels bred this summer in my aviary. The female was reared from a nest about four years ago, and the year after scratched a hole in the ground, and laid six or seven eggs, but she had no mate that year. Last winter a male Kestrel pursued a small bird so resolutely as to dash through a window in one of the cottages here, and they brought the bird to me. I put him into the avairy with the hen bird, and they lived happily together all the summer, and built a nest or scratched a hole in the ground, and she laid five eggs, sat steadily, and brought off and reared two fine young ones.' I have also heard from F. H. Salvin, Esq., of Whitmoor House, near Guildford, of their having built and hatched young in the aviary of Mr. St. Quintin, of Scampston Hall, near Malton; and also in that of S. C. Hincks, Esq., of Runfold Lodge, near Farnham. They had five eggs, of which he took two, and the birds hatched the other three. Some pairs of Kestrels seem to keep together throughout the winter. About the end of March is the period of nidification. The young are at first fed with insects, and with animal food as they progress towards maturity. They are hatched the latter end of April or the beginning of May.
The nest, which is placed in rocky cliffs on the sea-coast or elsewhere, is also, where it suits the purpose of the birds, built on trees, in fact quite as commonly as in the former situations ; sometimes in the holes of trees or of banks, as also occasionally on ancient ruins, the towers of Churches, even in towns and cities, both in the country and in London itself, and also in dove-cotes. Sometimes the deserted nest of a Magpie, Baven, or Jackdaw, or some other of the Crow kind is made use of. 'Few people are, indeed, aware,' says Bishop Stanley, 'of the numbers of Hawks existing at this day in London. On and about the dome of St. Paul's, they may be often seen, and within a very few years, a pair, for several seasons, built their nest and reared their brood in perfect safety between the golden dragon's wings which formed the weathercock of Bow Church, in Cheapside. They might be easily distinguished by the thousands who walked below, flying in and out or circling round the summit of the spire, notwithstanding the constant motion and creaking noise of the weathercock, as it turned round at every change of the wind.' "When built in trees, the nest is composed of a few sticks and twigs, put together in a slovenly manner, and lined with a little hay, wool, or feathers : if placed on rocks, hardly any nest is compiled—a hollow in the bare rock or earth serving the purpose. William Thompson, Esq., mentions a curious fact of a single female Kestrel having laid and sat on four eggs of the natural colour, in the month of April, 1848, after having been four years in confinement. An unusual fact occurred near Driffield in the year 1853, four eggs having been taken out of a nest, (the whole number in it,) five more were laid within a few days afterwards.
The eggs, which are of an elliptical form, and four or five in number, sometimes as many as six—six young birds having been found in one nest—are dingy white, reddish brown or yellowish brown, more or less speckled or marbled over with darker and lighter specks or blots of the same. Mr. Yarrell says that the fifth egg has been known to weigh several grains less than either of those previously deposited, and it has also less colouring matter spread over the shell than the others; both effects probably occasioned by the temporary constitutional exhaustion the bird has sustained. In the 'Zoologist,' page 2596, Mr. J. B. Ellman, of Rye, writes, 'this year I received some eggs of the Kestrel, which were rather dirty; so after blowing them, I washed them in cold water, and much to my surprise the whole colour came off, leaving the eggs of a dirty yellow, speckled with drab. Not long after this I received five eggs from another Kestrel's nest, which were exactly like those I had previously after they were washed.'
Male; weight, about six ounces and a half; length, thirteen inches and a half to fourteen inches and a half, or even fifteen inches; bill, strong, and with the tooth prominent, pale blue, or bluish grey, the tip black, and the base close to the cere tinged with yellow; cere, pale orange, or yellow; iris, dark brown, approaching to black; the eyelids are furnished with short bristles; forehead, yellowish white; head, on the crown, ash grey, each feather being streaked in the centre with a dusky line; on the sides, the same colour tinged with yellow: there is a blackish grey mark near the angle of the mouth pointing downwards, and a line of the same along the inner and upper edge of the eye; neck and nape behind and on the sides, lead-colour, faintly streaked with black, with a purplish tinge, as is the case with the other black feathers; chin and throat, yellowish white, without spots; breast, pale yellowish orange red, each feather streaked with dark brown, and a spot near the end of the same; back on the upper part, bright cinnamon red, the shafts of each feather being blackish grey, with a spot of the same colour near the end, on the lower part bluish grey.
My instructions to the printer were 'do not be afraid of making the colour too bright.' Nothing can exceed the beauty of the rich cinnamon-red colour of a well plumaged male Kestrel, so chastely bespotted with crescent-shaped black marks.
The wings, which are rather long and broad, but narrow towards the ends, expand to the width of two feet three inches, and reach to within about an inch and a half from the tip of the tail; greater wing coverts, brownish black, tinged with grey; primaries, brownish black, tinged with grey, margined and tipped with a paler shade, and the inner webs thickly marked with white, or reddish white; the second is the longest, the third almost the same length, the fourth a little longer than the first, which is nearly an inch shorter than the second; underneath, barred with darker and paler ash-colour; secondaries, cinnamon red on the inner side, namely, on the outer web, the inner being dusky with reddish white markings, and on the outer side as the primaries; greater and lesser under wing coverts, white, the latter beautifully spotted with brown. The tail, which consists of twelve long rounded feathers, the middle ones being an inch and a half longer than the outer ones, is ash grey, or bluish grey; the shafts, and a bar, which shews through near the end, of an inch in breadth, blackish brown, or purple black, the tip, greyish white; upper tail coverts, ash grey, or light bluish grey, as the tail. The legs, which are feathered in front more than a third down, and covered all round with angular scales, and the toes, bright yellow or orange: the third and fourth are connected at the base by a very short web. Claws, black, tinged with grey at the base.
The female differs but little in size from the male, at least in comparison with others of the Hawks. Length, from fourteen inches and a half to fifteen inches and a half; bill, cere, and iris, as in the male. Head, reddish, slightly shaded with bluish grey; neck, chin, throat, and breast, pale yellowish red streaked with dark brown—those on the sides forming transverse bands; back, dull reddish rust-colour, barred with dark brown, each feather having four angular bands of brown and three of red, and tipped with the latter, the shafts dark brown. The wings expand to the width of two feet four inches, or even to two feet and a half; the spots are less distinct than in the male. The second quill feather is the longest, the third nearly as long, and a little more than half an inch longer than the first. Greater and lesser wing coverts, darker than in the male; primaries, blackish brown, with transverse spots of pale red, and margined with white, the two first having their inner webs deeply notched, the second and third with the outer web strongly hollowed; secondaries, marked as the back. Greater and lesser under wing coverts, reddish white or yellowish white, with oblong brown spots. The tail and upper tail coverts, as the head, and the former barred with about ten narrow bars of blackish brown, the end one nearly an inch in breadth, the tip reddish white. The under surface is more uniform in colour, and less distinctly barred than in the male. Under tail coverts, unspotted. The feathers on the legs streaked with small dark markings.
The young are at first covered with white down, tinged with light sand-colour; iris, bluish black: when fully fledged, the bill is light bluish grey, tipped with yellowish grey or horn-colour; cere, pale greenish blue; iris, dusky, tinged with grey. Head, light brownish red, streaked with blackish brown. At the first moult the bluish grey appears mixed with the red in the male, and becomes more pure as the bird advances in age. Neck, on the sides pale yellowish red streaked with dark brown; nape, as the head; chin, throat, and breast, pale yellowish red streaked with dark brown. Back, light red, but of a deeper shade than in the old birds—each feather crossed with dark brown bands. Greater and lesser wing coverts, dark brown, tipped and spotted with red; primaries, reddish brown, tipped with light red, and spotted with the same on the inner webs; secondaries, spotted on the outer webs and barred on the inner with red. The tail, light red, barred on the inner webs with eight bands of brown, the end one being three-quarters of an inch in width; the tip dull reddish white; underneath, it is light reddish yellow. At the first moult the bluish grey tint appears in the male and the bars on both webs. The legs and toes, light yellow; the feathers, light reddish yellow—some of them with a dusky line in the centre. Claws, brownish back, the tips being paler.
The dark marks become smaller as the bird advances in age: those on the outer webs of the tail wear off first: those on the inner webs continue for two years. The female alters but little, assuming in a faint degree the greyish blue tint on those feathers which are of that colour in the male—the tail always remains barred.
The young are at first covered with yellowish white down.

"And with what wing the Stannyel checks at it."
Twelfth Night.

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