Kestrel Folklore

Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus

Why bother with folklore when the facts are just so colourful?  The Kestrel is truly blessed with not just one but two super-powers!  The first – it’s ability to hover in everything from the slightest breath of headwind – makes it the king of the open country. The poet Ted Hughes described the Kestrel “steady as a hallucination in the streaming air" and Gerard Manley Hopkins invokes the old country name in his poem "The Windhover" This shimmering attribute lends the Kestrel a host of shamanic properties: speed, accuracy, opportunism and patience to name the most recurring.

The second super power is the ability to detect ultra-violet light and that’s bad news for voles and mice. These incontinent rodents leave trails of urine along the paths they use and this emits ultra-violet light; providing hungry Kestrels with a glowing path straight to a tasty snack like the emergency lighting they tell you about in aeroplane safety briefings.

Even so the Kestrel’s place in the falconry ‘pecking order’ seems rather lowly. According to 15th Century manuscripts on the subject: “An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, a Saker for a Knight, a Merlin for a Lady; a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, a Musket for a Holy water Clerk, a Kestrel for a Knave”.  That latter phrase reaching out to us across the centuries to become the title of Barry Hines 1968 novel immortalised the following year in Ken Loach’s film “Kes” ranked 7th in the British Film Institute’s Top Ten British Films of all time and thereby fixing the Kestrel’s place in modern mythology.

But don’t imagine the Kestrel is a Johnny-Come-Lately in the mythology stakes. The Aboriginal people of south-eastern Australia (specifically, the Kulin nation) believed Balayang the bat was a brother of Bunjil the eaglehawk, but lived apart from him. Once, Bunjil asked him to come and live with him, but Balayang replied that Bunjil's country was too dry and that Bunjil ought to come and live with him instead. This upset Bunjil, who sent his two helpers, Djurt-djurt the nankeen kestrel and Thara the quail hawk, after Balayang. They set fire to the bat's country and Balayang and his family were scorched and turned permanently black.

Delving back further, how many animal sacrifices does it take to stay on a god’s good side? When it comes to the Egyptian sun deity Ra, that number seems to have been in the thousands. A recent study reveals that to meet a massive demand for mummified raptors, ancient Egyptians may have bred Kestrels and then forced the birds to gorge themselves to death. A mummified Kestrel’s CT scan shows it choked on its last meal, probably because it had been force-fed. Kestrels, which are common in Egypt, usually regurgitate the indigestible parts of their meals as pellets. The virtual autopsy of this bird shows that its stomach already contained digested remains from two mice and a sparrow, some of which it would have regurgitated if it had been given the chance, before it consumed yet another mouse. The tail of that last meal got stuck in the gullet and choked the bird. Ancient Egyptians often force-fed their captive animals, which makes this the earliest known evidence of keeping and possibly breeding raptors.