6th April 2021
Long have we explained to people that although the Osprey is a bird of prey, it has never been employed in history as a falconry bird. The main reason is practicality! One cannot easily hunt with a bird which specialises in hunting over water; the bird cannot be followed in flight as one does with a land hawk, and therefore the catch cannot be seized, nor the bird recalled. The only exception is the cormorant, which can be deployed to dive from a boat via a long tether line, and therefore to which it must return. An osprey catches fish with its feet while a cormorant scoops them up in its beak, so the techniques are completely different – rendering one useful and one useless!
There are various medieval illuminated manuscripts which clearly depict ospreys hunting, they appear in natural history publications describing the flora and fauna of a certain period. It was commonly thought that the Osprey had one hawk-like foot and one flipper or webbed foot, as clearly depicted in the image accompanying this article (from the C13th Topographia Hiberniae). It was not until we stumbled across a reference from 1577 that all became clear and we discovered that Ospreys could be used for catching fish, just not in the conventional way.
“We also have ospreys, which breed with us in parks and woods, whereby the keepers of the same do reap in breeding time no small commodity; for, so soon almost as the young are hatched, they tie them to the butt ends or ground ends of sundry trees, where the old ones, finding them, do never cease to bring fish unto them, which the keepers take and eat from them, and commonly is such as is well fed or not of the worst sort. It hath not been my hap hitherto to see any of these fowl, and partly through mine own negligence,; but I hear that it hath one foot like a hawk, to catch hold withal, and another resembling a goose, wherewith to swim; but, whether it be so or not so, I refer the further search and trial thereof to some other. This nevertheless is certain, that both alive and dead, yea even her very oil, is a deadly terror to such fish as come within the wind of it.”
Description of Elizabethan England by William Harrison.
So in summary, park keepers would shamelessly use osprey chicks to extort large quantities of fish from the diligent parent birds. And the osprey was suspected of exuding a toxic oil which killed fish. Whilst the first statement is likely true, the second most definitely is not! Neither does the Osprey have one webbed foot! An interesting first-hand perspective of a very misunderstood bird.
26th March 2021
A relative gave us a framed copy of a rather curious engraving, it required further research to reveal the story behind the picture!
The image of a Scotsman wrestling with an eagle whose beak is clamped around his gun barrel suggests the hunter may have become the prey, or perhaps the eagle is taking revenge, which is true? And is this fact or fiction?
I started with the publication, indicated only by the single word at the top of the page “Chatterbox”. I had no idea what this referred to. A quick internet search revealed that Chatterbox was a weekly British paper of stories for children published in the 19th and 20th Centuries. It was founded in 1866 and ceased publication in 1955. It was sold both here in Britain and in the United States. It is typically Victorian and would definitely not be deemed suitable for children today!! There are in excess of 400 papers which I had to search through to find this one tiny article.
Although not especially child friendly, I found the contents of the Chatterbox papers fascinating. They offer an eclectic collection of stories from around the world about every subject you can imagine, delivered in colonial fashion via traditional plummy tongue. Clearly designed to be educational, there are stories of cats and frogs, of insects and butterflies, of native peoples and cultural customs, of medieval knights and Asian warriors, of survival techniques and men at war, of fashion and society people, of exotic countries and journeys through jungle and river…….and men hunting on great rural estates.
Within each annual publication is a section entitled “A Hundred Years Ago” which offers a story supposedly true in origin from that particular year one hundred years prior. The story about the man wrestling with an eagle was published in 1904. This is it, word for word:
TRUE TALES OF EVENTS OF THE YEAR 1804
VIII. – THE GOLDEN EAGLE OF WETHERBY
“Late in the year 1804 one of the Countess of Aberdeen’s game-keepers, Cummins by name, was walking in Stockfield Park, near Wetherby, in the pursuit of his ordinary duties, when he saw against the dull autumn sky what appeared to him to be an immense hawk, flying rapidly towards him, but some distance above his head. The bird was far larger than any hawk Cummins had ever seen, larger indeed than any English bird he had known; and accordingly, partly from curiosity and partly from fear, he let fly at it with his gun. A few feathers fell, but apparently the creature was unharmed. The game-keeper rapidly loaded and fired again, and even a third time. The last shot seemed to disable the bird’s wing, for it fluttered clumsily in the air for a moment and then fell heavily almost at the marksman’s feet.
But it was by no means dead yet. When Cummins tried to seize it, it drew its head back and with a sudden thrust tore a deep cut down his forearm, rendering the clothes as if they had been paper. In vain the game-keeper tried to get behind the infuriated bird and catch it by the wings. In spite of its wounds – for each shot had hit, and it had been struck in the wing, in the neck (very slightly) and in the body – it was surprisingly active on its feet, and its terrible beak and talons kept the enemy at safe distance. Cummins had almost given the attempt at capture up in despair, when a bright idea struck him. Picking up his gun, which he had thrown down so as to have both hands free, he made as if to strike the bird with it, rather slowly. As quick as thought the snapping beak drew back, lunged forward, and caught the gun about half way down the barrel, closing firmly round it, with the sharp point of the upper jaw fixed in the wood. Still gripping the gun hard, the bird allowed itself to be half-led, half-dragged by the game-keeper to his cottage, where, after a vain attempt, lasting many days, to tame it and heal its wounds, it was shot and stuffed.
After its death the enormous bird was examined, and proved to be not a huge hawk, as in the dusk Cummins had at first thought it to be, but the King of Birds himself, a Golden Eagle – and a large one at that, for it measured nine feet four inches across its out-stretched wings. No wonder it was hard to kill!
The Golden Eagle is now extinct in England and probably was practically so in 1804. It is still, though very rarely, seen in remote parts of Scotland and Ireland. It is not naturally fierce, for many instances are recorded of one having been tamed. But it is a most determined and courageous fighter when roused, a skillful and daring hunter, and by reason of its great size and strength a very dangerous opponent even for a man. One of the most remarkable things about it is that of all the small animals it preys upon – rabbits, hares, young lambs, and the like – it prefers the cat as its quarry.”
For someone who researches history for a living, stories like this are gold dust. Let’s not sugar coat it, this tale is typically Victorian and demonstrates a typically archaic and disrespectful attitude towards to animals. Why anyone would want to recount that disturbing story to a child is beyond me! It is however very normal for its day. Leaving morals and motivations aside for one moment, the interesting aspects hide in the detail. Recounted in 1904, the author tells us firsthand that Golden Eagles were extinct in England and had been so for a considerable time, as he indicated the situation had not changed in one hundred years. The extermination of the Golden Eagle in England is generally put at 1850 but stories like this suggest it was probably much earlier.
Even more interesting is that “Stockfield Park” must be a typing error, no such park exists near Wetherby but “Stockeld Park” does and is a large country house estate which was owned by William Constable at the time of this story. Wetherby is of course in North Yorkshire, not Scotland, so the unfortunate eagle was in England, an English eagle. But was it? It could have been migrating through, it could have been a lost juvenile, it could have simply roamed over temporarily from Scotland. It would be wrong to draw any solid conclusions without more facts. What I do know is that a nod is made to falconry even though the word itself is not mentioned (“for many instances are recorded of one having been tamed”). I am perturbed by the inference that eagles are dangerous to men and can only assume that their rarity in the C19th, a direct consequence of purposeful extermination, rendered the last few remaining eagles nervous and fearful of man, and perhaps defensive of territory which was interpreted as aggression with an intent to harm. Can you blame them? And finally, who knew that the golden eagle’s preferred quarry was in fact the domestic cat?! Perhaps rapid and aggressive land use change had robbed the eagle of his natural prey and he was merely trying to adapt.
All that from a simple black and white image. See, every picture does tell a story. Well, this is my interpretation anyway!
22nd March 2021
The final chapter of my personal memoire.
Chapter Six – Sunset
It has been many months since I completed the previous chapter and started this one. For good reason. Two devastating things happened in between which not only delayed my continuation of this book but changed its direction too. On the 11th March 2020, exactly a year ago to the day, a virus pandemic was officially announced by the World Health Organisation. There had been an outbreak of a new deadly virus in China and it was rapidly spreading around the globe. Two weeks later a national lockdown was announced in the UK. I had just returned from a trip to Sweden and only just made it back before air travel ceased and the country ground to a terrifying halt. All our commercial bookings for the year ahead were cancelled and suddenly we faced a total and prolonged loss of income. Within the space of a single week, we went from facing our busiest and most lucrative year ever, to potential bankruptcy. Finishing this book no longer mattered as the fear for survival took over. We spent weeks trying to sort out our finances, negotiate contract settlements and claw together some financial protection. Like millions, we were scared and anxious and uncertain of our future. And then, in the middle of all the chaos, something even worse happened, Pageant died just 2 months short of her 21st birthday.
For the last two years I knew Pageant was living on borrowed time, her strength in flight was waning, and her eyes had become milky with creeping cataracts. I had her blood tested to check her organs were still functioning adequately, she had arthritis in one of her wing joints which needed anti-inflammatory treatment, and she had developed gout in one foot which required daily drugs. The signs were all there, her time was running out, all I could do was to keep her comfortable and pain free. I still flew her regularly but had to be more careful as she became less able, her flights were shorter, lower, safer. That February we had visited a museum in Stoke-on-Trent during half term to give indoor presentations about the use of birds during WWII, Pageant had come with us of course as this was just kind her kind of job. In one of my presentations, I recounted the story of a soldier who rescued an injured wild kestrel he named Cressida, he became so attached to her that when he was stationed abroad, he took her with him, but he was captured and spent the remainder of the war being moved between PoW camps. Miraculously he managed to retain possession of his kestrel throughout the war, surviving starvation, injury and separation until liberation came. Cressida charmed everyone she encountered, and because of the dedication of her handler, made it safely back to Britain. It is such a staggering, heart-warming story that I cannot recommend it highly enough (The Lure of the Falcon by Gerald Summers). Unbeknown to me, the visitor manager of the museum had been listening to my account, she approached me quietly at the end to say how much she had enjoyed the tale, and that she had noticed I got emotional despite me trying to conceal it with deep breaths and careful pauses. She was right, I had fought back the tears and choked on emotion more than once during my public delivery because the story was deeply personal, it reminded me so much of Pageant, she was my Cressida, and I knew I didn’t have much time left with her. It was Gerald’s story that inspired me to write my own, and I wanted to do it while Pageant was still alive, so the memories were fresh and not filled with sadness. I didn’t quite make it.
The last job we ever took Pageant to, was a private event at Witley Court in Worcestershire on the 3rd March. She enjoyed her day trip and the stimulation of getting out and about at the end of a long winter. That was the last time she travelled on her special perch in the van, the gout in her foot made her a bit unbalanced as she tried to compensate for the movements of the vehicle, so she spent most of the journey sat on my shoulder leaning against the side of my head. As we left Worcestershire, I made the decision to retire Pageant for whatever time she had left. No more travelling, no more flying, even though she loved both, because I needed to keep her safe. We had never been able to house Pageant free in an aviary, we tried on numerous occasions over the years only to find her hanging off the netting or hanging upside down from the roof, she was a liability and likely to hurt herself. Not all birds adapt well to aviaries and Pageant quite literally smashed herself to pieces. She was much more content tethered in a weathering (sat on a perch in a shed), and because we flew her so much, she didn’t need the freedom of an aviary. However, with gout causing her foot to swell, I no longer wanted jesses on her afflicted leg, and a bird cannot be tethered by just one leg, so it was time to re-visit the aviary option. We ended up converting a small hawk loft into a retirement aviary, installing ramps so she could get from the floor up to the high perches with ease, and making a shelf for her food and her water dish. She would sunbathe on the carpeted ramp and shuffle along her beam perch following the warm rays as the sun tracked across the sky. At her superior vintage, she behaved well inside the aviary and did not attempt to hang off the netting or throw herself about, although I still put her to bed every night inside the heated bird room, so her routine was the same as it had always been. She sat and watched the wild birds, and the cats, and my husband and I milling about the garden, and she seemed content. It was early spring and the days were getting longer and warmer offering Pageant plenty of opportunity to sunbathe, which after eating was her favourite pastime. I took a photograph of her soaking up the sun on her ramp, little did I know it was the last photo I would ever take.
Pageant had been in retirement for only two weeks when I noticed one morning that she had vomited up a lot of undigested food. She was a little subdued but drank and sunbathed as normal, I resolved that if she still looked unwell the following morning, I would have to try and take her to the vets. The nation was two weeks into a strict lockdown after the coronavirus outbreak, society had shutdown and accessing a vet was suddenly extremely difficult. My heart therefore sank like a stone the following morning when I discovered Pageant had rapidly deteriorated overnight. The end was coming, and she needed my help more than ever. I knew instantly what I had to do, she had to be put to sleep. I wish I could say it was a smooth process but with coronavirus restrictions it was not. Clients were not permitted to enter the veterinary surgery so had to pass their animals over to a member of staff in the car park. I was told when the vet came out to collect Pageant, that they might make an exception for euthanasia, he would speak to the practice manager, but they got on with the procedure without coming back to me and so I didn’t get to say goodbye. I was heartbroken. For me, that was the worst possible ending, it meant I didn’t keep my promise to never leave her. I could have complained but I was numb and devastated, the pandemic robbed so many people of so many things, I wasn’t a special case and I couldn’t change what was done. We drove home in silence, I was unable to speak and fearful of letting my guard down before we reached the privacy of home. We buried Pageant that afternoon alongside Lute, Altair and Beauchamp, three of our greatest birds who all died before their time from incurable conditions. It was a beautiful sunny day, a peaceful day to put her to rest, and we marked her grave with a tall, enamelled metal poppy which we can see from the house. I didn’t want to place her somewhere quiet and unseen, Pageant would have hated that, she was always at the centre of life. Now I imagine her sat on her great travel perch in the sky watching everything going on in the garden like she always did, and maybe, just maybe, hovering above me as I go about my duties. The thought of that makes me smile.
Nothing will fill the hole she left, and no bird could possibly replace her, but it hasn’t stopped me trying. For years I have attempted to find an understudy for my leading lady and each time I have failed. Many kestrels have come, and gone, in the tireless search for a Pageant II. There was “Autumn” in 2008; a parent reared female kestrel who was a great flier but far too nervous for our public work, she was given to an old friend who had always wanted a kestrel who flew to a lure, which Autumn did. In 2012 I acquired “Biscuit”, a young female who flew like a demon and hovered like a proper kestrel should, I loved her dearly and thought she was the one, but in her second year she went high on the soar one hot sunny day and tragically got chased off and killed by a wild buzzard. In 2015 the opportunity to buy a pair of young kestrels arose so I thought I might train them to fly together, it worked brilliantly on home turf but not at events where the male was perfectly behaved but the female always flew off. I contemplated keeping just the male kestrel and rehoming the female, but they were inseparable meaning I would have to find them a home where they could stay together. Fortunately, a friend who runs a falconry school was willing to take them and they still happily reside there together today. By this stage I realised that my efforts were always going to be fruitless, Pageant was unique, she could not be cloned, and I needed to stop trying for the impossible. I promptly abandoned my search. I have neglected to mention that I have always had a second kestrel in addition to Pageant, well maybe not always, a male five years her junior called Bodkin. He is a delightful little chap, handsome, extremely sociable but never as reliable as the formidable Pageant. He always hated her with a vengeance, while she was merely belligerent towards him, they reminded me of the two rival babies in The Simpsons animation and consequently had to be kept well apart. Bodkin was always there in the background never quite hitting the big time, I mean, how could he possibly compare to Pageant? And now she is gone, it is too late for him to step into the limelight. Male kestrels tend not to live as long as females, so he too is now entering his twilight and has already been retired. Poor Bodkin, always the page boy, never the groom.
Four years had passed when by chance I noticed an advert while searching the internet; an 8-month-old hand reared female kestrel was for sale, looking for a new home because she did not get on with her handler. I was intrigued, I had never known anyone not to “get on” with a kestrel! I drove three hours to go and see her, and the second I clapped eyes on her she was definitely coming home with me. Not because she was perfect but because she was being kept in such a poor state. That is how I ended up with “Celeste” who, as it turns out, really hates men! Mike has to hide when I fly her or she hunts him down and pins herself to his head! Fortunately, her handler is now a woman and we get on extremely well. I acquired Celeste one year before Pageant passed away and hoped I might have accidentally found her replacement, but with her social and behavioural issues, she still isn’t the one to fill Pageant’s mighty shoes. So along came “Griffin”, the last of my kestrel lineage and my 2020 lockdown project. She was unplanned but arrived at the perfect time. I hand reared this kestrel myself, spent the summer slowly training her to fly, took her to just a few public events during the autumn, and continue to bring her on slowly and carefully even today.
On reflection, and there has been a great deal of it during the last twelve months, the only good consequence to come from the pandemic is time. I have all the time in the world to nurture Griffin, just like I did Pageant in those early years, and if Griffin lives for anywhere near as long as Pageant did, she has all the time in the world too. Living without Pageant has been difficult, but the fact that she reached such an extraordinary age in my care, despite her catalogue of adventures, is all the comfort I need.
Pageant – Falco tinnunculous – May 1999- 29th March 2020
I hope readers enjoyed sharing my experiences of a very special little bird. If I ever possess a bird even half as magical as Pageant ever again, I will consider myself blessed.
Thank you for reading. Emma x
15th March 2021
The penultimate installment of my personal memoire. Scroll down for previous chapters.
Chapter Five – Little Ray of Sunshine
Pageant has always brought a lot of joy to my life because she is so full of life herself, she has consistently thrown her little self into everything and done it with gusto. For all those scrapes I got her out of, she helped me out of far more of my own. I hate to anthropomorphise animals, but she genuinely has a lot of character, too much character! It doesn’t feel comfortable saying that because birds of prey are generally quite linear, black and white creatures, but Pageant had a little extra spice about her from the beginning. I wouldn’t be the first falconer to admit that. Once in a while, a bird comes along which just charms the pants off you, I consider myself lucky to have had at least one. Pageant was cheeky and charismatic from the get-go, and big, larger than any other captive bred kestrel I have ever seen. I always put that down to good genetics. Every captive bred kestrel I have purchased since, and there have been a few in the tireless search for a Pageant mark II, has been small and delicate whether male or female. I am told that decades of captive breeding eventually breeds out the need for size, a form of natural selection, which would probably explain it. I realise now that Pageant’s size is partly responsible for her abundant confidence, from the moment I first flew her, she was bold and capable of taking on the world with both wings tied behind her back. Nothing really scared her, not even when we introduced a Golden Eagle to the flying team. Some of our hawks, much larger than Pageant, were terrified when they first clapped eyes on the giant predator, not Pageant, she didn’t care one jot. But I am convinced that Pageant has no concept of what she is, she was hand reared by a human and not a kestrel after all, so perhaps in her head she imagines herself as large as her human parent. That would explain her bravery. So yes, she is a bird of immense character.
Mike and I calculated that Pageant has participated in more of our events than any other bird on the team, she has always flown year-round unlike some of our big gun falcons, she has been flown by more volunteers/students/trainees than any other bird, and travelled more widely than any other bird, including on tens of ferries to the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands. We routinely mend more of her broken feathers than any other bird in our care because she is so mobile and active. My goodness has that bird flown a lot during her life! And that is when we have had the most fun together. But she has a handicap, a big handicap for a kestrel – she will not hover! Not ever. We know she is perfectly capable of performing that most natural action for her species, and very occasionally we get a fleeting glance of a hover if she gets caught by the wind, but she will not sustain it, nor can she ever be persuaded to do it on demand, so I gave up trying years ago. Most falconers spend a lot of time training their kestrels to hover, it can be achieved quite simply by employing a combination of food presentation and strategic positioning according to the wind direction. Many kestrels hover so naturally they don’t even have to be encouraged. Not Pageant, no way. She learned early on that hovering was not necessary, it was an action superfluous to need when one was not a wild kestrel, and frankly it was too much effort. She was going to get fed anyway so why did she need to hover? If I ever tried to get her to hover above me, she would simply land on my head and make me look incompetent, as if to say “told you I wasn’t doing it”. Imagine my delight therefore, when someone emailed me a photograph of me flying Pageant at an event and there she was, hovering above my head! I was oblivious, had no idea the little munchkin was lurking above, but now had the evidence captured for posterity. I decided years ago that Pageant has a personal motto; “I could, but I choose not to”. Emancipation apparently applies to kestrels too!
When I reflect on Pageant’s flying ability, for the most part she was always a boomerang bird; I could cast her off into flight, pop a small piece of food on my glove and know, without even looking, that she was already on her way back to me. A reliable falconry bird which responds instantly to recall is pure gold and she was like that from the start. But she never missed a trick and took full advantage of my human errors. Like the time I cast her off to a tree while exercising her in the meadows at home, I accidentally dropped all her food on the floor so bent over to pick it up not realising even more food fell out of my pocket as I did so. By the time I stood upright, Pageant had spotted the meat, stooped out of the tree at speed, snatched it off the ground and flown back up to the tree with it. The whole scene happened faster than the blink of an eye, certainly faster than I was able to comprehend and react to. What was the problem you might ask? When a trained bird of prey grasps its meal in its feet and then gets away from you into flight, you normally spend the remainder of that day (and sometimes the following one) chasing it across the countryside. A falconry bird will only come to its human handler for a food reward, therefore, if it possesses its own food the human is rendered redundant. That was me at that very moment, obsolete and without purpose, staring at a thoroughly victorious kestrel sat in a tree with a large chunk of meat, her personal motto ringing in my ears. She hopped from branch to branch and I feared soon enough she would take flight and disappear over the horizon with her prize, but to my relief she did not. Once she had found a suitably comfortable branch she started to eat. I stood completely still, held my breath, and did not move a muscle for the whole time it took her to feed, scared that any distraction would spook her into flight. Once the little monkey had finished her meal and wiped her beak clean on the branch, to my surprise she instantly looked towards me for more. Pageant has always been a greedy gut, even after a good meal there’s room for a little more, so when I placed a second helping of food on my glove, even though she had a full crop of meat, down she came without hesitation. That could have been a nightmare day, so thank goodness Pageant is a proud glutton!
About ten years ago there was an incident where Pageant entered a public tearoom without being invited, much to the amusement of the queuing customers. She wasn’t looking for food, she was just lost. This occurred at Dunster Castle in Somerset where we performed several times each year, so Pageant became very familiar with the grounds. The castle is positioned high on a densely wooded hill, and although the flying location was sheltered, above the treeline was often quite breezy and Pageant would sometimes catch the breeze and go for a little wander. We never worried, we just had to give it a couple of minutes and she would always find her way back, popping up somewhere on the castle wall or the tower of Tennant’s Hall. Apart from the one occasion when she didn’t reappear. Knowing how long to leave it before going to investigate was always tricky, many times we gave up on her too soon and she would come sailing back over just as one of us was running out of the event arena to go find her. This time around she had been absent for about two minutes which feels like an hour when you are in the middle of a public demonstration, I was explaining to our audience that we were going to close the show and go searching for Pageant, Mike was ahead of me climbing over the arena barrier in the direction we last saw her, when the people at the far end of the arena started to wave and point, not up in the sky or towards a tree as you would expect, but through an arched doorway in the castle wall….which led to the tearoom. Mike ran to follow the hand signals, passed through the arch and was stopped by someone who said, “you looking for a bird?”. He was directed through the tearoom door and there sat Pageant on the serving counter among the cakes and scones in their domed containers. “She was very well behaved, she just sat there” said one of the ladies in the queue. Everyone thought she was charming, even though she broke every food hygiene rule in the book, no-one knew what to do, so did nothing, and were mighty relieved when she was safely collected. It turns out she had entered through an open kitchen window and hopped her way along the work surfaces to the main counter, with no obvious way out, she just sat and waited to be rescued. She knew we would come eventually; we always did.
Pageant has spent all her life travelling. You will recall she has her own unique way of getting about and it was always a riot, I say “was” because we travel her a little less rigorously now she is very elderly. For every journey whether a short trip or long haul, there she would sit happy as Larry on her little seat perch watching the whole world go by outside the window screen. We have had 2 black Labradors over the years, and both had to endure travelling with a kestrel perched above them, neither interested in the other as they were raised together, but the dogs at a significant disadvantage. They both lay in the danger zone beneath Pageant’s bottom, and both would exit the van after a long journey striped like a badger! We never did find a way around this so just carried many packs of wet wipes to counter the hot, watery jets fired indiscriminately from above. Pageant loved water, she drank lots, and lots, and lots which made travelling with her very messy. The human passenger was at risk if she decided to turn her tail before dumping her waste, which she did at least once per journey and normally within the first hour when she had the greatest load to dispose of. Many of my hooded tops ended up with a hood full of kestrel faeces, goodness knows how many times I must have walked into a petrol station without knowing I had a long streak of poo all down my back. We got so desensitised to it my husband would never bother to tell me. The shame! So I started to keep a spare jumper in the van at all times. Sometimes a new contract worker or trainee would ride in the passenger seat, but we would forget to warn them, so they would be christened by Pageant like a surprise induction ritual. A horrific one! If there was sunshine streaking through the wind screen, Pageant wanted to be in it, so you were never allowed to put the sun visor down, you just had to suffer the glare and go blind. If there was a traffic jam or slow-moving traffic, Pageant would get agitated, she much preferred to see cars whizzing by at speed. She also preferred motorways to local roads, they meant more speed and fewer bends, but motorways increased the chance of seeing buzzards and kites, which, by the way, she HATES. Travelling also meant spotting a lot of hovering kestrels whom Pageant considered to be intruders, flicking her tail in anger at the audacity of their presence. She owned the roads, not them! She would sit up there on her travelling perch, day and night, rain and shine, through thunderstorm and snow blizzard, crossing bridges and sailing on ferries, taking it all in. I came to recognise that she had two favourite views; across the estuary from the M25 Dartford bridge, and from the M5 across an enormous valley somewhere near Weston-super-Mare. She would raise all her head feathers, point her head forwards and stare as if in complete awe at the expanse of her view. The novelty of her travelling position even once helped us to avoid a speeding ticket because the policeman was not expecting to see a kestrel when he bent down to talk through the window. Subsequent kestrels would never take to travelling this way but in truth, I am whole heartedly glad that it is a trait unique to Pageant.
When you make a living from demonstrating birds in flight to the public, it is not uncommon to be upstaged by your feathered co-star. Pageant has excelled at this throughout her life and is most entertaining when she can publicly embarrass me, something which happens all too frequently. She has landed on my head during numerous shows only to cause my historical headdress to fall off – and trust me, that’s a big fat nightmare in the middle of a public performance. I have lost Medieval headdresses, Norman veils and Roman hair pieces to heavy kestrel feet. She has been known to dive into my falconry bag and hang off the side in an attempt to help herself to food and has often been thought lost only to find her quietly hanging about above my head perfectly hidden in my blind spot. Many times have I heard sniggering from the audience as my kestrel reduces me to a blundering fool. Quite recently, she decided to turn her part in a medieval event into a comedy show when she caught a huge beetle; she was in mid-flight when she suddenly stooped towards the ground and pounced on something, she then proceeded to jump up and down and run around in circles, whereby, on closer inspection, I could see she had caught a large black beetle which kept escaping her until she ran after it and caught it again. I bent down to try and pick her up (and put an end to the nonsense) but she ran away from me at speed, with her beetle! She wasn’t going to be parted from it or have it stolen from her. The next five minutes were like a scene from a Benny Hill sketch, with a medieval lady comically chasing a sprinting kestrel round and round the grass. It must have been one of those beetles which excretes a bitter defensive substance because after squashing it with her beak a few times, she spat it out and shook her head vigorously as if it tasted very bad. Birds of prey in fact cannot taste, but they can detect extreme bitterness – thank heavens because the show could not have gone on without getting Pageant back, with or without the beetle.
In her latter years, I noticed that Pageant started to feel the effects of cold weather more and more. I would worry about her overnight even though she has always been put in a mews box to sleep. Her box could be moved around so it often got brought into the house where she could benefit from the central heating, until we installed a wall heater in the garage. When we moved house some years later, we converted an old detached garage into a custom built bird room which was insulated and heated so I never had to worry about her again. It remained a problem however, when we travelled away to events which meant staying away from home overnight. I secretly smuggled Pageant’s box under cover of darkness into many a B&B and hotel room, she has slept in her box inside airing cupboards, ensuite bathrooms, boot rooms and under stairs cupboards, anywhere quiet and warm. No other bird has ever been pampered in this way. We have even started taking a gas heater with us to events so we can keep her warm inside our many marquees. And that is why, for the last three winters, Pageant has spent various odd days sitting on a perch in my office when outside has been a snowy apocalypse. I have a large table which, once cleared, houses a free-standing perch and a water bath on a carpet mat. She sits looking through the front window, watching the pigeons and the moorhen on the front lawn, ignoring my two cats and them ignoring her. A most unusual scene of harmony but not uncommon in my household. She is quite good company as an indoor companion and has watched me sew, type, draw, hoover and paint with interest, the only downside being that one must be on constant poo watch because the more she drinks, the further she can fire it!
My husband recently reminded me of an incident I had completely forgotten, probably because I wasn’t there to witness it myself, but Mike was, and so was Pageant. An unforeseen moment when Pageant brought sunshine to a group of special people on a very dark day. It was the summer of 2002, Mike was working part time as an avian pest controller on various landfill sites across Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, and it was the time of the ghastly Soham murders involving the disappearance of two little girls. Forensic police had been searching one of the landfill sites at which Mike worked, they had been there for days sifting through the rubbish and waste, it was a dirty and depressing job, and deeply traumatic for those involved as they desperately looked for human remains. Morale was so low that the chief of the investigation, who had heard there was a falconer on site, came to see Mike to ask if he might fly some birds for the forensic team, to raise their spirits and give them a distraction before they resumed their duties. Mike always took two falcons and 2 hawks to that particular job, but by chance he also had Pageant with him that day as he was planning to fly her in the adjacent meadow during his lunch break. What better bird to fly as light entertainment for a group of people who desperately needed their minds taking to a happier place? That’s Pageant all over, a little ray of sunshine who has touched tens of thousands of people during her lifetime. One special little bird indeed.
Final chapter coming soon. Copyright Emma Raphael.
7th March 2021
The next installment from my personal memoire about the oldest and best kestrel in the world! Only 2 more chapters to go…
I have already dealt with some of Pageant’s troublesome scrapes in an earlier chapter, but they were of a minor grade with no lasting effects. However, a bird of Pageant’s age cannot have escaped a few more serious incidents bearing in mind the distances she has travelled and the variety of bizarre locations in which she has flown. Those stories, thankfully few, arise from a series of unpredictable and unfortunate incidents, which without careful management, could have resulted in a fatality. However you cut it, flying birds is risky, because the big bad world is full of hazards just waiting to get you. Imagine the rollercoaster that each day brings for a wild bird, never knowing from one day to the next if it’s going to see another sunrise. My birds are wrapped in cotton wool in comparison to their wild cousins, protected and pampered all their lives, but even they are not immune from danger.
In her youth, Pageant would travel with us to Fort Nelson, one of the Royal Armouries museums in Hampshire. We performed both Victorian and WWII period falconry on the parade ground and would visit two or three times a year. Pageant was a great bird for that environment; a hard surface military fortification with high grass embankments, lots of roof tops, lamp posts and cannons – loads of places for a kestrel to perch up on during flight. She was a cracking little flier at the fort and so always came along. Gaining vehicle access to the fort was a lengthy process; it required us to park up on a sloping track in front of the tall main entrance gates, then run halfway round the outside of the fort to the visitor entrance to announce our arrival before being granted entry. Two members of staff had to be called by radio to attend the gates and open them together, after clearing visitors away from the area, and this all took time to put into effect, so sometimes we would be waiting for up to 20 minutes outside. During one visit it was incredibly windy, the wind was whistling around the fortification and gently rocking our van. The fort sits high on a hillside looking strategically over Portsmouth harbour so on a windy day it is very exposed. Pageant was tethered on her travel perch to the side of the passenger seat headrest, between the seats, and was merrily preening her feathers while we awaited access. My husband took our dog for a brief walk and opened the side loading door on his return to let her jump back inside the van, by coincidence at the same time I opened my passenger door and climbed out, the force of the wind against the door immediately slammed it shut again just missing me. The power of the slam jolted the side loading door out of its catch, and because we were parked on a slope, the sliding side door gained momentum and rapidly shut. At the very last second, and goodness knows why, Pageant decided to bate towards the door, that’s the action of trying to fly forwards. To my horror, I could see that she had been tethered to her perch with too much length on her leash, she should not have been able to reach the side door at all – but on this occasion she did. Her head filled the gap between the door and the frame just as it slammed shut.
I can honestly say I have never felt as instantaneously or as deeply nauseous as I did at that moment, as though my stomach plunged to the floor and my heart stopped. She’s dead. That was the only thought in my head as I fought to open the door. I feared looking inside afraid that our negligence had resulted in tragedy, I expected my precious little companion to be crushed and lifeless and it would have been my fault for not concentrating, not doing my job properly. I couldn’t live with that. The sorrow was choking, sickening. When we carefully peeled the side door back Pageant was not dead, she was however clearly injured. The relief was fleeting. My little girl had scrambled back up on to her perch somehow but was hunched over with her head dropped and one eye completely shut. If this happened to me today, not that it would with lessons having been learned the hard way, I would dash straight off to my specialist exotic vet, but we had no such vet two decades ago. We were a long way from home and did not want to put Pageant through a lengthy journey in her delicate state, it was late in the afternoon and we wouldn’t get home until after dark now, so we had to make some decisions and fast.
First things first, examination and assessment. We have always carried a comprehensive bird first aid kit with us so were not completely helpless. The first rule with any sick or injured bird is to keep it quiet and warm so we vacated a travelling box, lined it with carpet and placed Pageant inside. She was on her feet, not seeking to lay down, so we were comforted a little by that. It was June so the van was adequately warm, we finally gained entrance to the fort so drove carefully to a quiet spot in the private area and parked up. This gave us the opportunity to examine Pageant more carefully, apart from a patch of feathers missing on one side of her head there was nothing visible. She was clearly badly bruised and a little shocked, so we treated her for the shock with a restorative liquid fed by tube directly into her crop, we administered some anti-inflammatory pain killers, and then left her alone in her box to rest. Had we been at home we would have done nothing more and a vet would only have pulled her around and x-rayed her which would not have helped. Today a bird can be quickly and safely anaesthetised for inspection, but 20 years ago the process was not so refined and the risk of anaesthetic death for birds, particularly small ones, was extremely high. We checked on Pageant every hour and were satisfied that she was at least comfortable. We were staying on site overnight in the education room so took her box indoors with us and kept her warm. The next morning, she was still wobbly but far more active, she wanted her food as normal which was the best sign we could have hoped for because when a bird of prey refuses to eat it is an indication that something is terribly wrong. Her eye was still half closed but she was vocal, fully responsive, and able to eat. We transferred her back into the van and put her a little water dish in her box, she sat there quite comfortably and quietly on her perch with the door open. There was a narrow ray of sunshine streaming through the windscreen that just happened to fall on Pageant, so she sat there soaking up the warmth with her feathers roused. We got on with our day of work and looking after the other birds we had with us, Pageant remaining in the peace of the van the whole time, and our host venue oblivious to our private drama. Every time we checked on her, she had shuffled around to remain in the sunshine as it moved through the day, and by the afternoon, after a second meal, she began to contentedly preen her feathers. At that moment we knew she was going to be ok.
Pageant was now strong enough to safely travel so we were greatly relieved to arrive home later that evening and put her to bed inside the house. The following day her eye was examined by our vet and thankfully there was no damage, just some tissue swelling which gradually reduced with a continuation of the anti-inflammatories. Pageant became a house kestrel for two weeks during her recovery, and we left her with a friend when we had to travel away for work, so she had a full month of rest and recuperation. I am pleased to report there was no lasting damage other than to my own self-confidence for mis-managing my favourite bird. All these years on I have still not forgiven myself. Pageant went on to fly for many more years and continued to travel about with us on her seat perch – but on a strictly shorter leash. Over the years we progressed to using larger commercial vehicles which afforded her more room and automatically kept her further away from the dangerous side door. Remember, she would not accept travelling any other way!
Pageant had a second close shave some years later when she got hung up in a tree. This is an unlucky accident for a falconry bird to have and generally results from flying a bird in the wrong leg equipment. The leather straps which hang down from a hawk’s leg are called jesses, they allow the falconer to hold and secure their hawk, but they are not necessarily safe to free fly a bird while still wearing them. The jesses can get caught up in branches should a hawk land in a tree, so traditionally we use two types of jesses: one for tethering a bird to its perch (mews jesses) and one for flying a bird free (field jesses). The mews jesses contain a slit in the end of the leather straps through which a metal swivel can be attached to conjoin the jesses to a leash, for the purposes of tethering. Once the swivel and leash are removed a hawk can then be flown wearing the remaining jesses however, the slit in the mews jesses can open and snag on things like branches, it is extremely dangerous and increases the chance of entanglement. If an entangled hawk is not found or recovered quickly it can of course be fatal. Good falconry practise requires mews jesses to be changed for field jesses before flying, which means replacing the straps with slits for slightly shorter straps without slits. It is a fiddly job but takes very little time to do and vastly reduces the risk of entanglement. I have always slipped the mews jesses out and replaced them with field jesses before flying and it has served me well during my time as a falconer. I have never had a problem with entanglement, except for that one time with Pageant.
We were exhibiting at a country house in Essex, I was in the middle of flying Pageant who was winging about through the arena and perching up in trees. Mike had made some new flying jesses which had their first use that day, a lovely soft, thin burgundy leather cut into little straps with NO SLITS! Pageant’s old jesses had become stiff and dry despite oiling them frequently, so it was time to change them. Mid demonstration she pitched up in a horse chestnut tree, sat there a little while and then tried to return to my glove, but she couldn’t, she flapped and fell forwards until she hung upside down. She had grabbed hold of a narrow branch with one foot and her toes had locked around it, she was unable to let go immediately and so swung backwards and righted herself from behind the branch. We call this being “sticky-footed” and it refers to the ratchet mechanism in a raptor’s foot, the fact that toes can temporarily lock in place to hold prey, a great system but one that takes a little time to release. Phew I thought, she will relax her foot in a few seconds and then she will be able to fly back to me, but she didn’t, she flopped forwards once again, and this time could not scrabble back into an upright position so hung upside down like a bat. Pageant flapped and flapped and flapped to try and right herself, I abandoned the demonstration and ran beneath the tree to get a better look. She was about 15ft high and I could see that her leather jess was completely wrapped around a tiny narrow branch. Righting herself the first time by going up behind the branch had caused the jess to completely encircle it, and by continuing to flap forwards she was tightening its grip. A couple of minutes had passed by now but that was enough time for Pageant to begin to tire, she ceased struggling and just hung there. This was now a rescue mission.
Mike and I plus many members of our audience were hurriedly discussing what to do; someone ran off to try and find ladders, a young chap offered to climb the tree but the branches were too thin to support any weight, Mike thought about driving the van over so he could climb up on the roof to reach her but getting to the car park and back would take a lot of time. Then one gentleman suggested standing a nearby park bench on its end, using the slatted seat like a ladder, and climbing up to stand on top. Genius! It took six people to lug a very heavy and long wooden bench over to the tree, everyone supported it with their weight and an extremely tall man volunteered to climb up. Minutes later dear little Pageant was rescued. She allowed the rescuer to fold in her wings, scoop her up in his hands and hold her upright. He snapped the entangled twig with his fingers and passed her carefully down below. This man had no experience of handling a bird of prey, he just wanted to help, but it seems in the panic of the moment he instinctively knew exactly what to do. Pageant was unhurt, just exhausted from all the flapping. That pesky twig was still attached to her field jesses, wrapped tight like a ribbon, ironically because the leather was new and supple. Had I used her old flying jesses which were stiff like thick paper, well, the accident would not have happened. It would seem that by trying to do the right thing, I did the wrong thing. Or was it simply a case of bad luck? Either way, after this incident we started to use slightly thicker leather for all our flying jesses, or to remove jesses completely, and touch wood we have not had a repeat. Pageant continued to land in trees quite happily for the remainder of her life thankfully unaffected by the drama in the horse chestnut.
The only other occasion when Pageant had a close shave with the grim reaper was at Pickering Castle in North Yorkshire when she was 5 years old. It was early spring and the weather had turned suddenly cold. We were working solo at the castle, there to perform medieval falconry, and it was a challenging venue with no vehicle access and restricted airspace, but as always we did our best. On the first day of our weekend event, Pageant looked a little off colour, she was unusually quiet and still which was not normal. Her eyes were a little sullen and she sat with her feathers fluffed up as if unwell. When you know an animal, you know straight away when something is wrong. She had dropped a lot of bodyweight overnight despite seeming perfectly healthy the day before, the tolerances for little birds are small, so her loss of half an ounce clearly affected her starkly. This explained her lethargy and lack of energy, so we fed her a meal straight away dipping her meat in a special recovery liquid. We always carry a couple of frozen “emergency mice” with us for just such instances, although on this occasion they were Russian hamsters because our food supplier had run out of mice (we jokingly called them Russian cosmonauts – apologies to anyone with a pet hamster), so we heated up the interior of the van and left Pageant in the warm all day with a large Russian cosmonaut. She perked up nicely but when we weighed her at the end of the day, she still hadn’t gained any weight. A thick frost was forecast overnight and that left us even more worried about Pageant’s health. We were due to camp overnight in the castle education room which had heating and hot water, we were obviously going to have to take Pageant indoors with us overnight, but then we noticed that adjacent to the education room was a barn with double doors – built to accommodate a vehicle. Our door key, loaned to us by the castle custodian, also unlocked the barn so we had a quick look inside. We expected it to be full to the ceiling with shelving, stock goods and storage items making it impossible to squeeze a van in, and although there was some stuff inside, there wasn’t so much that it could not be moved aside to make space for a vehicle. So that is exactly what we did. With permission, we parked the van indoors overnight in a heated building which felt like a huge victory, all the birds were safe but particularly Pageant who, despite a second meal, had only managed to maintain her weight rather than gain more. Fortunately, her weight did increase the following day after another stay inside the van hugging yet another Russian cosmonaut, and by the time we went home on Sunday evening she was perky and absolutely fine. There is no doubt, the combination of a warm barn and some fluffy foreign rodents saved Pageant that weekend. Ypa! (that’s Russian for hurrah). We were jolly lucky to have the right facilities at just the right moment!
Leaving all the previously described dramas to one side, the absolute worst thing that ever happened to Pageant is something that I consciously and purposefully did to her. I find it hard to admit, I am ashamed to admit, that I gave her away. I took her from her comfortable home and a loving owner, and I sent her to live somewhere else with someone she didn’t know. I regretted it so much I made myself sick. I remember the anguish like it was yesterday. A week prior, one of our regular clients had made a passing remark after watching our display at an event, they commented off-hand that while the larger birds (the hawks and falcons) were impressive, it was more difficult for the audience to see a bird as small as a kestrel flying inside a large arena space. It was insinuated that if we wanted more work in the future, we should perhaps take this into consideration. If someone had the brass to say that to my face today, I would wipe the floor with them, the arrogance! But this was a long time ago, my husband and I were still finding our commercial feet and our confidence was low. We took the (unprofessional) remark to heart and returned home to consider restructuring our flying team. We had a friend who ran a small falconry centre, she was looking to buy a kestrel that year, so this seemed the obvious place to send Pageant to start a new life. I could not bring myself to put a price on Pageant’s head and sell her, so she was given as a donation, not that it lessened my guilt one iota. She jumped after me as I walked away and I couldn’t bear to look back. Leaving her and driving off was the worst feeling ever, it was a total betrayal. I cried the whole way home, I cried in the bath, I cried through the night. The next morning I woke in a flaming rage; how dare anyone tell me which birds I should and shouldn’t fly, no-one is that important, no-one! And how utterly stupid and naive I was to even contemplate putting a customer’s needs before those of my own bird. But as we quickly learned in those early years, it was easy to get taken advantage of and to be manipulated for no other reason than allowing someone else to feel powerful. I phoned my friend as early as I felt acceptable, pretty much at first light, and within an hour had Pageant back in my clutches. She heard me approaching before she saw me, and on recognising my voice, began to call excitedly, it broke my heart. I promised her that day I would never, ever leave her again.
Next chapter coming soon! Copyright Emma Raphael 2021.
1st March 2021
The third installment of my personal memoire. Scroll down for previous chapters.
A bird so long lived in the public eye cannot escape eventual fame. Pageant is certainly one of our most photographed birds, the bird more guests have held and flown than any other, and the bird which has featured in the most advertising campaigns during my commercial career. When a press photographer arrives at an event and wants a quick shot, normally in some utterly unsuitable environment or in a questionable pose, it’s always the steadfast and highly tolerant birds which get selected for the job. Always Pageant! Stand here, look over there, hold this, raise her up there, put a Roman in front, a Medieval knight behind, a WWI soldier to the left and Queen Elizabeth I to the right – yep, that’s a job for good old Pageant. She has conducted every single falconry experience day throughout our career, she has appeared in posters, postcards, leaflets, booklets and all over the internet in online marketing and personal photos, and of course she has appeared on television. I have often visited a public toilet at a venue and closed the cubicle door to find my little bird staring back at me from an advertising board, I have sat in various hotel rooms around the country and seen her little face cheekily poking out from a tourist leaflet, I was even watching tv once and there she was helping to promote the many attractions at an iconic venue in the North. Impressive coverage for one so small and insignificant, certainly in comparison to her larger and more handsome cousins who so easily could have been selected instead. But if you need a job doing well you need a Pageant.
My favourite promotion was accidental and hilarious. We were due to present Medieval Falconry at Dover Castle, and so in the weeks before our visit, giant posters were dotted around the site advertising the upcoming event. The image selected by marketing was that of Pageant coming down to land on my glove, her wings arched back, and her legs extended forwards with open feet in preparation for landing, only Pageant and my glove were included in the frame, blown up to great size and detail so it filled the poster. A clever visitor to the castle, one of its thousands of international non-English speaking visitors, had interpreted the poster in their own unique way due to the scale of the image and the fact they probably did not understand its purpose. A dark-haired woman of Latin appearance stood at the bottom of the poster obscuring the image of my gloved hand with her body, her co-conspirator walked away a distance just great enough to include both her, in full profile, and the remainder of the poster above. The pose and perspective must have been tinkered with and perfected resulting in a bizarre image that was published on a certain social media platform. The image showed a giant-sized kestrel “hunting” a life-size woman with her feet perfectly positioned around the woman’s head, the woman had her arms raised as though she were being lifted from the ground with a terrified scream upon her face. It was clever and funny, although I suspect it did little to improve visitor attendance to our falconry event that weekend!
True fame only ever came to call for Pageant once and that was a starring role in a comedy television series in the early Noughties. We got the gig via a friend who worked occasionally at a television studio on Tottenham Court Road in London. The job description was ambiguous and so we didn’t really know how to prepare or which birds to take for the job, we knew it was static work, that it was indoors and involved training an actor for a sketch, but that was it. Driving into London 17 years ago without the help of satnav was a challenge but we arrived at a large concrete building with underground car park from which we had to unload our birds to the upstairs studio. We were given our own dressing room in which we quietly perched a selection of hooded falcons on a cadge frame; we expected that a traditional species of falconry bird in a brightly coloured plumed hood would be preferred for the shoot, something majestic looking, well behaved and large enough for the camera to easily pick up. It was decided by the assistant producer that it might be best if the actor chose the bird which they were most comfortable learning to handle. The actor would be sent along in due course. It was all a bit mysterious and secretive, or perhaps they thought we knew more than we did. Anyway, about half an hour later a petite blonde-haired lady was brought to meet us, she was the actor we were to train. Neither Mike or I recognised her. The larger falcons intimidated her a little so she selected the smallest, least heavy bird to hold upon her hand (imagining multiple takes and having to hold the bird for a good length of time). That bird was Pageant, the one we brought along as a spare, just in case, but supposed would be too plain and unimpressive to be of interest. We gave the actress some basic instruction in handling, she asked a plethora of questions about Pageant’s behaviour and quizzed us over falconry terminology, then she disappeared, and we twiddled our thumbs for a good hour waiting for something else to happen. All television work, we later came to understand, involved a lot of waiting around. Suddenly we were called to the studio; a large almost clinical room filled with unidentifiable technology and a separate chamber built in the middle draped on all sides with blackout cloth. We pushed through a slit in the cloth screen to find a small set inside built to recreate a radio station with mixing desk and microphone, it was a tiny set and purposefully cramped as if operating on a low budget. That is precisely what the scenario turned out to be. A familiar face entered the room, dutifully raised a hand to acknowledge us and then turned back out into the corridor, that face was the comedian and actor Steve Coogan. We were on the set of “I’m Alan Partridge” supposedly in the dingy local Norwich radio station from which his character worked when he wasn’t getting up to his wild antics or offending people on location reports. There was a farming or rural theme and Mr Partridge was due to interview a falconer, although clearly it was not going to be a smooth experience. We were handed a script so we could help the production team work out where to place the actress and how to manage the bird’s involvement. As I skimmed over the script, I noticed the words “chocolate mouse” and knew instantly this was not going to be a serious shoot!
Some years prior we had spent three days filming with the Channel 4 Time Team crew, a popular archaeological dig show, whose presenter Tony Robinson was one of our television heroes (we are big Blackadder fans so meeting the comedy legend “Baldrick” was a big moment). But of course, the actor was nothing like his character and in fact was a very serious and professional man who sprang into lively action the second a camera rolled but then retreated instantly into the privacy of himself the moment “cut” was shouted. This was the case with Steve Coogan who barely uttered a word nor cracked a smile between takes but became hugely animated when in character. For us simple, unknown folk it was unnerving and at times startling. Neither my husband or I are easily starstruck, probably a consequence of meeting a lot of famous people during our long career and being down-to-earth animal types, so we kept quiet, hung in the shadows and waited to be called. When Mr Coogan finally walked on set there was a respectful hush, he nodded at us but didn’t speak, there was a brief discussion between the production crew and then the actor took his seat at the broadcast desk. The actress whom we had been training was already in position with Pageant upon fist, she was trying to familiarise herself with some falconry terms and work out where was best to stand with her small charge. “Quiet on set please” was requested and the first take was attempted as we listened to Alan Partridge interview a female falconer about her sport in his famously inappropriate and obliviously offensive manner. It felt wrong to laugh as our occupation was jokingly belittled but laugh we did, and the punch line “chocolate mouse” in relation to what the kestrel ate remained amusing even after multiple takes. At one point Pageant became restless and turned about several times on the glove, she was wearing a small bell on her leather anklet and with every tiny movement came a metallic tinkle as the ring of the bell cut sharply through the silence of the film set. I feared it was becoming an annoyance to Mr Coogan as he kept pausing and seemed to lose his thread, so at the next cut I offered to remove the bell to prevent distraction. “No!” was Mr Coogan’s reply, the only time he spoke directly to me, “I can use that, I’m just trying to find the right place to work it in”. I felt mildly chastised for not appreciating the creative process but was redeemed when I suggested the bell could be rung at a particular moment by encouraging Pageant to turn around on the glove. That lightened the mood in the studio which improved even further when it was discovered that Pageant had a naturally vocal disposition and could be encouraged to chat at considerable volume on cue, a revelation which played right into the hands of Mr Coogan’s creativity and served to animate the entire sketch beautifully. Pageant was the perfect model and we wrapped after only a few takes. I have only ever seen the finished production once, when it aired on tv later that year, and I remember having to tune in every week to watch each new episode of I’m Alan Partridge because we had no idea which featured Pageant – but it was worth it to see my little girl cheekily immortalised on the big screen!
Pageant did once fail to make the grade for a marketing project and was rejected on sight due to her small size and cute appearance, despite having emailed photographs to the client in advance and Pageant being remotely selected for the job. This was a fashion shoot for a boutique jean wear company staged at an old Victorian pump station in London. The flamboyant German director wanted to create a steampunk industrial vibe and thought a “mean looking bird” would be a great addition. That being the case goodness knows why they originally selected Pageant as the best candidate for the role, a bird about whom there is nothing mean either in character or looks. When they saw her tiny stature, she was immediately dropped from the line up so thank goodness we took a few other birds along with us. The role eventually went to Vega the Harris Hawk who was much larger and considerably meaner looking! That same year Pageant instead made the front cover of the complimentary brochure accompanying the largest historical event in Europe along with myself dressed as a Roman and various other period characters. A more fitting context for the little madam.
The job I am most proud of Pageant having completed for me was an evening lecture inside the theatre at The British Library. We were so excited to be invited to this prestigious institution, it was an absolute first to have live animals at this world-class venue and so the planning was meticulous. We were there to promote a special exhibition about Henry VIII in which some of the library’s rarest artifacts were on show to visitors, and over a period of weeks, a variety of historical interpreters were invited to stage live recreations to compliment the themes of the exhibition content. We were “Tudor Sports”. The daytime outdoor part of our work was straightforward, we set up a small historical scene under the overhang of the building on the edge of the central piazza and from there we gave timed presentations and chatted with visitors. We were extremely popular and enjoyed conversing with an all-academic audience for a change, some of whom had come specially to see us. Seeing live birds of prey in a city environment was a huge novelty and certainly drew the crowds, although our newly made high-status Tudor costumes were equally popular and inspected with interest. The complication came in the evening lecture, something we had been asked to deliver to coincide with a book signing from an author whose latest publication was about the history of hunting. The lecture was to be a ticketed event, separate to the exhibition and hosted indoors in an educational theatre, so the content had to be specific, concise and credible. I used my years of research to write a detailed script and planned to animate it with prop demonstrations and live actions, mainly to avoid listeners from sliding into sleepy boredom which sometimes happens when someone talks at you for more than an hour. I decided to present a whole section on training techniques, mirroring actions shown in well-known illuminated manuscripts, explaining falconry terminology and busting a few myths. I wanted to be able to show in real time how a falconry bird was trained, so people could leave the lecture having seen a bird fly, but how could that be done indoors on a stage? When you are lucky enough to have a Pageant, this is not a problem! So, I attached her jesses to a training line (creance), and using a free-standing post, I was able to get her to fly across the stage to me. This required not only the safety of the line, which both secured and contained her, but a lot of trust that the bird would do exactly what it was asked and not deviate an inch from the plan. We didn’t reveal to the audience that we were going to give them a live demonstration until we actually did it and they were of course delightfully surprised. Pageant did not put a wingbeat wrong and became the celebrity of the night. I mean, she’d already worked with Steeve Coogan and Tony Robinson, so this was a breeze!
An original work by Emma Raphael. Chapter 4 coming soon!
22nd February 2021
Here’s the second installment of my personal memoire about Pageant the kestrel.
Scroll down for the previous chapter.
Chapter Two – I Knew You Were Trouble
Pageant has always been fearless in flight; confident, fit and determined, but she seldom planned ahead! Many times, she has set her sights on an impossible destination either too high, too far away or just inappropriate to land on, and it has got her into trouble. Far too many times. The problem with a bird of prey is that it’s not designed to think first, thinking slows down reactions which is not helpful to a predator, so they plough ahead at full steam and then have to deal with the consequences. Except it has always been me who has had to deal with the consequences of Pageant’s blind bravery. Like the time she ended up in a bin and had to be extracted from a stinking mess, she certainly didn’t plan that move when she zoomed round the back of the barrack block building at Carlisle Castle and pitched up on the lid of a huge trade waste bin. She has always had the habit of sitting up somewhere and waiting to be collected whenever she flies into an unfamiliar area, and fortunately I have never had to chase her down in flight, but goodness knows why she decided to fly outside the demonstration arena and around the side of a building that day. To be fair, the waste bin looked as though it had a solid angled lid, but it was actually covered by wide plastic strips which were soft and parted when something of weight dropped onto them, this was so a bag of rubbish could be thrown up into the top of the open bin, drop through the plastic strips and fall into the container below. The strips presumably kept rain and vermin out. Now, although a kestrel doesn’t weigh much, in Pageant’s case 8 ounces, it was still enough mass to cause her to slide down the sloped lid and disappear into the dark metal box below. By the time we found her she was scrabbling over black bags and instinctively trying to climb up to the highest point, her talons breaking open the bin bags with tiny little rips and tears. Mike and I looked at each other as if to ask “who’s going in?”. But this was clearly a man’s job! I think it’s the only occasion we ever forcibly washed Pageant rather than leaving her to bathe herself. The water spray we routinely carry in the van came in very handy that day!
In the early days of our falconry demonstration business, we were younger and far braver than we are now, our birds were youthful and strong too, so it led us to taking more risks than we would be happy to do today. Life is all about learning from experiences, practicing falconry is no different. I remember one of our first ever medieval events in the late 1990s was at Portchester Castle in Hampshire, it should have been a delightful experience, but I remember crying all the way home because I had hated it so intensely. We were not employed to be there in an official capacity, we were there as voluntary members of a living history group, and although the wider group had been invited to participate, we personally were not treated with any kindness or consideration, by either the visitors or the other participants, despite having animals to care for. It was such a shock and so deeply upsetting that I vowed we would never attempt historical re-enactment ever again, for the sake of our birds, we either had to go professional and do it properly or give up. Low and behold, just a few years later, we returned to that same venue as paid performers to be part of a large Roman festival – and had a vastly better time of it.
I remember the weather conditions deteriorating over the weekend, rain was threatened, and the winds were high which is never good when you’re trying to fly birds. We were under pressure not to disappoint our new client who had been let down by so many other falconry suppliers before, so we didn’t want to wimp out and cancel our flying display, we resolved to risk flying only those birds who were capable and experienced – one of whom was Pageant. She had become a good, reliable flyer never straying far and always perching up in within sight whether that be on castle walls, in trees, or on flag poles and lamp posts. By the time it came around to flying it was blowing a steady 25mph with occasional strong gusts so it was risky putting up an 8oz kestrel, but I knew I could easily contain her at ground level within the shelter of the castle walls. What I failed to acknowledge was that Pageant had other ideas. She was well behaved and co-operative to begin with, but quickly became bored doing straight-line flights between me and one of our flying posts. She suddenly lifted in a gust of wind and let it carry her upwards at rapidly increasing height until she was above the top of the tallest tower within the castle grounds. She trod air for a long time in true kestrel style, hovering to hold her position in the wind, she then dropped her head and set her sights on landing on the edge of the tower. I could see her fighting to make headway against the flow of the wind but eventually she made it. Pageant lowered her legs like the landing gear of a plane and attempted to set down, but a stone wall offers no purchase, nothing to which a bird can secure itself. A hard surface cannot be grabbed or pinched with talons, so up she went again back to hovering and trying desperately to maintain her position. It looked as though she was losing her fight as she disappeared over the far side of the tower and out of sight, I was preparing myself to run outside the castle and round to the parkland on the exterior to find her, but then she popped up once again and attempted another landing. This happened several times until finally, miraculously, she landed and managed to hang on. The relief was short lived because I realised somehow, she still had to come down, or I had to go up and get her. I should have had more confidence in Pageant’s abilities, and I think it was this experience that taught me just how capable she was, because after a little rest on the top of the tower she looked down at me, folded her wings like a peregrine and conducted the most amazing stoop in a perfect straight line all the way down to my fist. I had forgotten that the general public were watching, they broke out in spontaneous applause as Pageant landed on my glove, and for a second time I cried at Portchester Castle.
There is a certain amount of confidence to be drawn from the familiarity of working at a venue regularly and there are many historic properties we have had the privilege of visiting frequently over the years. One of those venues is Alnwick Castle, known as the “Buckingham Palace of the North”, an imposing fortress continuously inhabited throughout its history and home to the present Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. Performing in what is effectively the Dukes’ back garden and being welcomed by the wonderful staff there has been a genuine pleasure. Security is understandably tight at the castle and access controlled by the security team who are the nicest and friendliest chaps you could ever want to meet; they would always happily greet my husband and I on arrival and trust us to get on without supervision. Working at Alnwick Castle always felt like working at home, flying within the walls of the inner bailey provided a controlled and familiar environment in which my birds were confident, they came to know the walls and towers and sought out the most suitable places to perch, and the best spots to find natural lift. The only complication arose when a physical change was made to that familiar landscape altering the geography of the inner bailey, it would catch the birds out and occasionally throw a spanner in the works. Physical changes at magnificent historical properties are rare, thank goodness, but because of the vintage of these grand buildings, restoration and maintenance work are common often involving contractors, vans, scaffolding and all the distractions of a building site which is not great when you’re trying to deliver a serene falconry display. This particular castle has always been very accommodating asking contractors to suspend works temporarily during displays so as not to affect the birds, but it didn’t stop one little kestrel from getting herself into big trouble.
During one visit, my husband and I arrived to find scaffolding had been erected along the entire face of one side of the castle wall, it had multiple layers with walkways and ladders connecting the different levels, there was green nylon netting strung from top to bottom on the exterior of the scaffolding presumably to keep the workmen safely inside and other things out. The structure was neat and organised, it was clearly visible and did not obstruct our airspace or pose a threat to our birds, or so we thought! The stonemasons working on the scaffolding agreed to go off for tea breaks during our flying displays and so all fell quiet and “normal”. Except that Pageant decided she would try and land on the top of the scaffolding as it was a few inches higher than the castle wall she normally perched on. Scaffold poles are like landing on ice for a bird of prey, smooth and slippery, the cylindrical metal is not accommodating to talons, so in the breeze Pageant slipped off. She flopped directly downwards and disappeared into the scaffolding structure behind the netting, I could see her sitting on one of the wooden floor planks, I tutted and gave her a minute to work out that all she had to do was flap and hop up a few feet onto the castle wall, but of course that would have been far too easy! Instead, Pageant ran comically along the walkway behind the netting and then suddenly dropped through a laddered access gap on to the level below. And now she was trapped. Solid planks lay above and below her, the blackened face of the castle wall behind, and green netting in front, completely boxing her in on all sides. She was never going to be capable of finding her way up the ladder and back through the narrow access point. She was going to need retrieving and quickly before she hurt herself attempting to escape. The flying display had to be abandoned while Mike and I rapidly thought on our feet, something you get unnervingly good at as a professional falconer, and every move watched in morbid fascination by the 200 odd people who made up our viewing audience. Privacy is a luxury we have never enjoyed when things go wrong.
The obvious solution was to access the scaffolding, climb up the various internal ladders between levels and physically retrieve her, but our constant handicap while working is being dressed in utterly impractical historic clothing. I was sporting my usual Medieval gown made up of excessive amounts of flowing silk, something I regularly tripped over and got caught in doorways just walking on the flat, not to mention the tall butterfly headdress with face-chomping veil, so climbing ladders was not an option without first changing into modern clothing and that would take far too long. Mike too was handicapped by a voluptuous three quarter length woollen gown and slippery leather bottomed medieval boots, all which would have to come off before attempting a rescue mission. We needed the contractors who were dressed and equipped for the task but who were, of course, on an enforced tea break somewhere in the bowels of the castle and locating them would be difficult. This mental assessment fired through my brain at lightning speed and so within about 30 seconds I had ruled out all those options without need for verbal discussion. I studied the structure with my eyes and could see only one course of action which would result in a speedy rescue. I shouted to Mike to clear all the visitors away from the wall so there was just me at the bottom of the scaffolding and no-one else to distract or interrupt. People are often very kind in these sorts of situations and want to help, or they are unashamedly fascinated and just want to watch, but what they don’t appreciate is that we need space because birds are not dogs, they are not sociable and do not come when they are called especially if they have been spooked, instinct kicks in and their attachment to humans is forgotten. With only me visible in front of Pageant, I could keep her attention and control her behaviour. I could see that the scaffold netting was open in just one place, right at the end of the structure in the corner of a right angle of the wall, the masonry contractors obviously couldn’t fall out here because the return of the adjacent wall blocked them. There was a gap of about one foot between the end of the netting and the wall, I just had to lure Pageant along the length of the scaffold walkway to this point, it was about 10 metres in length, and she would have to walk it on the planks as there was not enough open space inside the scaffold structure for her to fly. If only I could have explained my plan to Pageant and have her understand it, how easy that would have been. Instead, I could only manipulate her behaviour through vision using food to tempt her, it’s all I had. When I first slapped a huge piece of meat on my gloved hand and raised it to tempt her, she tried to come directly towards me and ended up bumping into the soft netting several times much to the gasping horror of my distant spectators, but I needed her to do this precisely to realise that she couldn’t get to me that way. I then started to move along the length of the scaffold structure about 2 or 3 metres ahead of Pageant so that she would follow me along, and she did. She ran along the walkway to catch up with me and each time I would go on a little further until finally she came to the end of the netting. The walkway ran out here and the only thing protruding beyond the netting edge was a horizontal scaffold pole about 6 inches long, I needed Pageant to hop up on to the pole so she would be out from behind the netting and then to freedom. But a slippery scaffold pole is what got her into this mess in the first place so would she have the confidence to try? Sure she did, she is the best kestrel in the world! So up she hopped and out she popped flying down to me instantly with the sound of applause and wolf whistling in the background. Everyone watching was as relieved as I. The stone masons returned from their tea break completely oblivious to the drama that their work environment had caused, and Pageant became a bit of a celebrity that day with people visiting our exhibition tent just to meet “the little bird who climbed out the netting”.
I would like to say that was the only time Pageant had a mishap at Alnwick Castle but it was not, how could it be when we worked there so frequently? She once flew directly into the have-a-go archery attraction and landed on top of a large archery butt which at the time was in use, fortunately the archery instructor had the good sense to make everyone lower their bows until I could retrieve her. On another occasion she got knocked off the castle wall by a very aggressive swallow which was nesting on site, it harried her repeatedly and proceeded to chase her into the archery nets, although I think Pageant consciously headed for the nets knowing that by flying towards a dead end it would lose her the pursuer. Once again activity had to be paused while I trudged over to collect her. I remember with particular fondness one early summer at the castle when an amazing natural phenomenon occurred, it was a beautiful bright sunny day and comfortably warm even early in the morning – a good day for young birds to fledge and leave the nest for the first time. I was used to seeing swifts, swallows, jackdaws and crows but had never seen any small hedgerow type birds inside the castle grounds because other than grass and stone walls there was nothing to attract them. Obviously, I was wrong. The stone walls, or at least the gaps between them where the mortar was missing, clearly made great nest sites because on this day it was as though fledgling birds were literally being fired out of the walls! I was inside our exhibition tent when something hit the roof of the canvas, then the side of the tent and then the roof again. I ran outside to see what was falling from the sky but saw nothing until something whizzed past my face. They were tiny fledgling blue tits the size of large bumble bees, they all slid down the canvas onto the grass and I had to dash round and scoop them up before they flew directly into the waiting feet of my large hawks! I called Mike over and we watched as they emerged at speed from the wall adjacent to us, so fast it was like they had been flung from a catapult, we were jumping in the air and leaping up to catch them, to prevent them from landing among all our predatory birds who were spread out on their perches and watching fervently. We managed to save them all and let them go at the other end of the inner bailey where they were safe to zoom around and try their wings without risk of being swallowed by a feathered monster. There was only one fledgling who came too close and that landed on the ground next to Pageant, she looked down at it with a complete lack of recognition and watched it with curiosity turning her head on one side to assess what on earth it was. Fortunately, the fledgling pinged off before Pageant could make up her mind. I’m pretty sure, had it landed beside any of our other birds, that would have been the end of its maiden flight.
Pageant’s most recent faux pas at Alnwick Castle was in 2018, a simple case of misjudging her movements which resulted in her getting trapped in a tower behind a locked iron grill. She has flown past the locked entrance to this tower a hundred times, the inset doorway is sunk below ground level so only the top half is visible, and it is covered with a sturdy iron gate which is locked to keep visitors out. There are stone steps cut into the ground leading down to the doorway and if you peer through the iron gate into the darkness, you can just make out a walkway leading to terraced steps and a stone staircase twisting up into the tower. To this day I still have little clue how Pageant ended up down there, the ground level of our flying arena was above the height of the top of the doorway, so all our birds automatically flew above it even without trying, but somehow Pageant got it wrong in the wind and ended up landing at the top of the external steps leading down to the tower door. I called her back to my glove for some food as she was perfectly capable of lifting up into flight from where she was and making her way back to me, but then a child waving something in their hand ran over to peer at her despite me asking everyone to keep their distance, it spooked Pageant whose view of me was now blocked by encroaching onlookers, so when she took flight it was in the opposite direction, downwards. By the time I clambered out the flying arena and got down to her, there was a crowd gathered around the doorway. I must admit, I got pretty angry and lost my professional cool, especially when someone commented that she was originally sitting on the grass but had now gone through the metal gate and disappeared into the darkness. “Of course she has” I barked at them, “because you all scared her”. I urged them all to go away and show a little respect, someone actually apologised and led their family away. I scare people when I’m angry, I don’t mean to but I’m not good at hiding my feelings, especially where my birds are concerned. I am a fiercely protective mother. Once quiet finally descended, I bent down at the front of the metal gate and called into the darkness. Having rescued a wild sparrowhawk from inside the upper chamber of the same tower a few years before, I knew there was only one way out. I could hear a faint bell which told me Pageant was not far away, the bell attached to one of her leather anklets was not ringing but clunking, which suggested she was hopping around on the floor, the bell sounding with a dull thud every time it hit the stone. As I continued to call she came into view on the edge of the darkness, at first just a small silhouette, and as she followed my voice which steered her back into the light, eventually there she was in full colour. She tried to fly towards me but could not, a combination of having damp feathers after absorbing water off the stone floor, and simply running out of steam. To get to me she was going to have to walk, something I knew from her previous exploits she could do. There were 2 large, terraced steps each about a metre wide and a series of small, much narrower steps for her to get up in order that she reach the metal gate. With the lure of food and a lot of patience I managed to encourage her to hop all the way towards me, gradually, step by step, until there was just the black metal security gate between us. I have no idea how she got behind it in the first place because she certainly couldn’t get through it now, the gaps between the metal bars were slightly too narrow, she would try and fail and retreat backwards as if scared. So, with one last attempt, I put my whole gloved hand through the bars with food attached and allowed her to climb up on my fist, offering her something familiar and comfortable to sit on. At least I had physical hold of her now. I put my free hand through the bars above her and gently closed my whole hand around her back closing her wings and cradling her body in my palm, I tilted her on to her side and slipped my hand out of the leather glove below leaving it in her feet, I was then able to carefully squeeze her sideways through the metal grill from the other side, pulling her carefully through from the front with my other hand. My little girl didn’t wriggle or fight, she just calmly let me do it, and once liberated I put her back in an upright position on my gloved hand. She looked so very tired, as though she had run out of fight, and I remember thinking this was the first time I truly acknowledged her age might finally be starting to show. She was 19 years old when this happened to her.
I took that day very hard; it was the dawning of a truth that I did not want to face, and it was made worse by the thoughtless behaviour of people I had always been happy to share Pageant with, but now I found them undeserving. Fortunately, my dimming faith in humanity was greatly restored during the remainder of the day as a string of concerned and worried visitors checked in with us to discover if Pageant had been rescued safely. She inevitably bounced back with impressive speed after a big restorative meal and a lengthy sunbathe, and of course behaved as though the adventure in the tower never happened. Meanwhile I was left feeling like I needed therapy. Again.
Pageant’s most embarrassing escapade occurred when she was much younger, in her early teens, at Carisbrooke Castle during a summer Medieval Jousting Tournament. She was flying around the main arena quite merrily using the tilt rail (the fence the jousters ride their horses along) as a perch, when she suddenly veered off towards the audience. The event was being staged on the bowling green which looks like a small amphitheatre with a sunken central stage and steep, sloped terraces on each side. It is a poor environment for falconry so we cut our cloth to fit and took with us only low, slow flying birds which could manoeuvre easily in the limited air space. Pageant had flown here many times before with success, so we were not anticipating any problems. There was, however, a little girl sitting in the audience on the terrace just a few feet above the height of the arena floor, and for some reason Pageant fixed her attention upon the girl and quite literally bombed over towards her at lightening speed landing with precision upon her head. This is a behaviour we never encourage in any of our birds for it is inherently dangerous to freely allow birds with sharp talons to perch on delicate human heads, not because they will intentionally hurt a human, but because the attached human is unpredictable and may well do something in response that causes injury to both themselves and the bird. Pageant sat there upon the girl’s head for a few seconds, she had long, blonde hair pulled back tightly into a ponytail so the girl barely felt her at first, but then she raised her hand to knock Pageant off which is the reaction I feared. A fast swipe of the hand could potentially hurt such a small bird and would only force my kestrel to grip on more tightly precisely so that she didn’t fall. Poor Pageant hung on for dear life as the girl got more agitated and began to cry, she repeatedly tried to hit the bird whose wings were flailing around as she was thrown about by the violent movements, and between the moments of nauseating terror I wondered why Pageant was not letting go. Within about 20 seconds I had clambered up the terrace in a very un-ladylike fashion, climbing upwards on my knees in my big medieval gown, to the scene of the incident where I attempted to calm the girl so she would remain still enough for me to retrieve my bird. Pageant was not hurting her human host who was just scared; I could see straight away that the root of the problem was a bright yellow fluffy decorative hair band tied around the girl’s ponytail. At distance, the hair band looked just like a yellow fluffy day-old cockerel chick which was one of Pageant’s staple foods, she had grabbed it with both feet thinking she had caught herself a free meal, and when her unwilling host began to thrash around she of course hung on even tighter. Raptors have a ratchet mechanism built into their feet to prevent their quarry from escaping easily, the more the prey wriggles the tighter the ratchet deployment, in this particular instance there is a time delay between thought and action, so Pageant could not have released her grip immediately even if she wanted to hence not being able to escape her bucking bronco. Satisfied that the little girl was not in any pain, her parents and I kept her still so that using a real day-old cockerel chick I could encourage Pageant to calmly step off the fake one, and thankfully she did so instantly. The situation was now calm so I was able to explain to the girl what had happened, I joked that she should not go around with dead food on her head which might attract all sorts of birds and that extracted a giggle through the red eyes and snotty nose. I was keen not to leave the little girl with a permanent fear of birds so I invited her to a private meet and greet session and allowed her to hold Pageant on her hand instead of her head. This went down well and normality was restored. Pageant was thankfully unhurt and has never landed on anyone’s head since, well, except for mine. When I think of it, that was the same event at which we spotted a member of the audience towing a tiny kitten on a lead resulting in an official intervention and a potential disaster averted……but that’s a different story!
The photo accompanying this chapter is Pageant sunbathing on the grass in the inner bailey of Alnwick Castle, a place she obviously felt very relaxed in when she wasn’t get up to mischief.
Copyright Emma Raphael 2021
17th February 2021
I have spent the last 25 years of my life working as a professional falconer, it was not a career path I chose, quite the contrary, it chose me. I grew up with animals of all varieties around me and knew from a very early age that I preferred the company of them to people, so I suppose a career with animals was probably always my destiny. After graduating from university, I had no idea what to do with my life, I found the experience unfulfilling and felt like I had been mis-sold the promise of a glittering future, so I fell back on my secondary skill of catering which had given me steady weekend employment since I was 16 years old. I found myself managing a coffee shop and later a hotel restaurant, but it was a soulless existence for someone who pined to be outdoors. I was never more depressed than when my life was completely absent of animals. So, I decided to change my career path while I could. I threw in my job, moved back home, and applied to the RSPCA to become an inspector. In the meantime, I gained part time employment as a shop assistant at a newly opened bird of prey centre in my home village, I figured that it would pay to keep my car running for the summer hopefully just long enough to progress my other job application. But the course of my life has never run smooth, so typically I received a letter inviting me for an interview to become a trainee animal inspector, the very same week the manager of the bird of prey centre offered me a job as a trainee falconer. My fate was sealed that day when I chose the latter.
I knew nothing about birds of prey and even less about the art of falconry, it felt like a big risk and conflicted a little with some of my personal views, but I realised I was young and naive about many things in life so this was a good broadening opportunity. It was a revelation, a real journey of discovery and a very levelling experience. My training allowed me to escape the distressing break up of my parents’ marriage and loss of my family home, I immersed myself in this new foreign world and found solace. And eventually I found a husband, and a business, and a life quite literally full of birds. For 23 years Mike and I have run our own falconry business, we started very small with just 6 birds offering flying displays for public events, we picked up a couple of profitable bird control contracts, expanded the team, took on more bookings, started to specialise in historic interpretation, dropped the bird control work, made a huge investment in specialist equipment and in the year 2000 became the UK’s first full-time professional historic falconry performers. I could not have predicted that that would be my future, not in my wildest dreams.
Those first few birds which we started out with in the beginning are mostly gone, 3 however survive today and this book is about one of those survivors who is not likely to be with us for much longer. I wanted to share the adventures of an incredibly special bird, a companion so precious that life without them seems unthinkable and yet that day creeps ever closer as old age tries to rob me of my treasured friend. Before that day arrives, I wanted to remember and record the life of an extraordinary bird; a female kestrel called Pageant. She is nothing special to look at, no pedigree background, no exotic origin. She is just a common Eurasian Kestrel bred in captivity and legally sold to a young falconer in the 1990s– but this bird turned out to be anything but common!
There are many reasons why I cherish my kestrel and class her as “special” but at time of writing it falls to the fact that she has reached an age greater than any other of her species has ever been known to survive to. She is approaching 21 years of age which makes her an avian geriatric, longevity in birds is related to size so the smaller a bird the less its expected lifespan, and the average age for a kestrel born and kept in captivity is 15 – 17 years. My old lady is still flying and travelling around with me, but her time is running out, so before it does and my memories fade, here is my account of her amazing little life and all the adventures we shared.
February 2021 Edit: During the course of writing this book Pageant sadly died. Her health started to rapidly deteriorate in March 2020 due to suspected organ failure, and so that day of which I was so utterly terrified came around. She was put to sleep on a beautiful, bright, sunny spring day in circumstances that added a final tumultuous chapter to her life story, as you will read at the end. Her loss made the completion of this book all the more necessary as I clung to her memory.
When my husband and I went to collect a kestrel from a breeder in the spring of 1999, what was presented to us was unexpected. We had ordered a young kestrel to hand-rear ourselves and subsequently train in the falconry way. We were expecting a 4-week-old chick, an ugly ball of fluff with rubbery feet (as most young raptors are), but that is not what met us in the lay-by of a road somewhere on the outskirts of Hull. The breeder would not allow us to visit his home in order to collect the bird, that was not unusual in the 1980s and 1990s when the price of captive bred birds of prey was high and breeders feared their stock being stolen if their address was known. We were complete strangers to the breeder, so he agreed to meet us at a public location for the collection. We followed directions to a lay-by adjacent to a car sales outlet which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. We sat and waited a while until an old Jag pulled up behind and a man smoking a cigarette jumped out, he was red faced and flustered like he didn’t have time for this appointment, there was a brief exchange of words and a small cardboard box was shoved in my husband’s hand, the cash was taken hurriedly in exchange and away the chap sped to take back what remained of his work lunch hour. Looking back over my 25-year career as a falconer this was the fastest and most unusual bird purchase I ever experienced; ordinarily the buyer would want to see the bird, check it was in good health and inspect the paperwork before handing the money over, but captive bred kestrels were not that numerous in the 90s so no questions were asked – here’s your bird, here’s your registration documents, goodbye!
We clambered nervously back into our vehicle and shut the doors. We looked curiously at the box, a small cardboard box designed for the transportation of budgies – it even had a picture of a blue budgerigar on the side. Slowly and carefully, Mike opened the top flaps of the box and peered in exclaiming “oh!”. That was not the reaction I had expected so I leaned over for a glimpse of the little chap. “Oh? What’s the matter? Oh!” My eyes were not seeing the image my brain had conjured in my head. I was not looking at a fluffy bundle of baby bird. Inside the box was a fully grown, fully fledged female kestrel literally filling the space and looking utterly disgruntled at her inappropriate confinement.
The little budgie box would have been perfectly comfortable for a kestrel chick, the age of bird we were expecting, but it was quite unsuitable for a fully developed kestrel with brand new feathers we didn’t want bent or broken in too small a carriage box. It’s no wonder the breeder made a quick exit and then refused to answer our calls, he knew he hadn’t sold us the bird we ordered but what could we do? We had no recourse without his home address to return the bird to – and he knew it! So we were stuck with a 4 month old kestrel which we had to hope had been hand reared as requested (albeit by someone else) and therefore was hopefully sociable with humans. She didn’t look very sociable scrunched up in the bottom of her tiny box, but we couldn’t leave her in there for the 3 hour journey home, it was too cramped and uncomfortable, so we decided to transfer her to a larger travel box we had in the van. She had no jesses fitted to her legs, the soft leather anklets and straps we falconers use to hold our hawks upon our fists, so I carefully placed my bare hands around her shoulders scooping her body up in my palms and lifted her out. She bit my thumb, her feet kicked out like flailing fists and she shouted at me in that high pitched, ear drum piercing fashion that only irritated kestrels can, until I held her up to a perch in the middle of a large hawk travel box and she clambered to step up. I let go of her withdrawing my hands quickly through the box door so that I could close it before she attempted to escape, but she didn’t move, she just sat there looking back at me through the 2 inch gap. Not what I had expected but then nothing that day was.
Rather than slowly hand rearing a baby kestrel indoors as we had planned, over the next few weeks we found ourselves jumping straight to flight training. The female kestrel was jessed as soon as we got home, manned every day and given an outdoor shelter in which to live. Fortunately, she turned out to be very sociable and was a co-operative student, her behaviour very quickly confirmed she had been hand-reared and was what we falconers describe as a “food imprint” which equated to having bad manners around dinner (beak open, shouting to parent whilst furiously flapping wings!). She will grow out of that we convinced ourselves, but of course she never did. “She” became “Pageant” a few weeks later, a name taken from the back of a caravan whilst on the way to our very first public event with our new and previously nameless bird. Now please understand, we ordinarily take the naming of our birds extremely seriously but in this case we just couldn’t find a name to fit, and then I saw a caravan with the word Pageant printed in beautiful script along its rear, it looked like an elegant word and conjured up images of a procession of people in colourful costume, or an outdoor recreation of a historical scene. Perfect! That was after all the destiny of my little brown bird, and so a gleaming white caravan that we travelled behind on the A14 near Cambridge bestowed her a lifelong title.
Strangely I don’t remember much about those first few months of flying her and even less about the public events we took her to. She was an understudy in those days, a back-up bird being slowly built and moulded in the background while our older and more experienced birds took centre stage. Mike was fulfilling a weekly contract on various landfill sites in those days using falcons to scare gulls and pigeons away, I was working part-time in a seaside tearoom while quietly developing our business, we featured in only a handful of public events through the summer months and so there was no immediate urgency to push Pageant on to our bird demonstration team. We had all the time in the world. Mike would sometimes take Pageant to his landfill work and fly her on the meadows adjacent to site, I would fly her on my days off and at the weekends, and so the little falcon got lots of flying time through the week, she gained confidence quickly and learned to fly in all manner of weird and wonderful places. Most importantly she was learning to travel; not just via her wings in a natural form of movement but also via human vehicle, and that was to become both her greatest talent and most memorable quality.
Ordinarily a trained falconry bird would travel in one of two ways; either inside a custom-made hawk transportation box or hooded on a cadge (a wooden travel frame). We came from the old school of falconry so did things the traditional way which meant all our other falcons travelled hooded, we had a pair of Lanner Falcons and a Peregrine Falcon who were all trained to travel this way because it was tried and tested and safe. Hooding in English falconry can be traced back to the time of The Crusades when the early Plantagenet Kings and their Knights travelled to the Holy Lands and witnessed the native falconers using hoods to train and travel their falcons, the soft leather caps simply cover the eyes and simulate night encouraging the wearer to roost and settle regardless of whatever is happening around them. Falconry birds were able to be transported with care and comfort in this fashion by men travelling on foot, on camel, on horseback and even on-board ships. But not Pageant! We had a beautiful hood especially crafted for her, hand made by an expert hood maker at great expense, it was made from the finest grain black leather with a snakeskin trim and decorative plume, it was a miniature work of art. Try as we might, introducing the technique of hooding to Pageant very early on as is proper, she would never accept it and we tried every known trick in the book combined with patience and perseverance, but she was having none of it. We could get the hood on her head and draw the braces to secure it, but she would spend the following ten minutes finding a way to get it off. We would start a van journey with her sitting on her travel perch with her little hood on behaving perfectly and without a hint of a problem, there would be no noise or disturbance during the journey, nothing to alert us to an issue, and yet when we arrived at our destination the little black hood would be rolling around somewhere on the van floor and Pageant would be sat proudly and nonchalantly staring back at us bare faced and victorious. We changed tactic and tried travelling her around in a falcon box, but she would jump off her perch and scratch at the door for the entire journey until we let her out. Then one day in despair and defeat we tethered her to the travel perch and just didn’t bother with the hood at all, we figured it was worth a try as we had run out of ideas and the little madam was obviously never going to accept it. Bingo! She sat on her perch good as gold the whole journey, not a flap of a wing, not a hint of distress, in fact she began to preen and rouse which are sure signs of contentment. So, Pageant chose her own way of travelling. We ended up constructing a hinged perch that fitted over the headrest of the van seat so she could travel at the rear of the passenger, high up in the roof space, and she absolutely loved it, she could see everything we could and had so much visual stimulation that it kept her completely absorbed for the entire journey, however long. She still travels that same way today. It has gained us a few funny looks and hard stares at service stations and toll booths, but in our vehicle having a kestrel tethered above our heads is entirely normal.
We established early on the things which Pageant liked and disliked. She did not like dogs, much to the chagrin of our Labrador who spent most of her life being shouted at by a small bird, clearly the breeder did not have a dog so Pageant was not familiar with big hairy beasts, she came to tolerate ours eventually but only after asserting her dominance in a very vocal fashion until the dog would shrink away. The dog became very respectful of Pageant over the years, anything for a quiet life. Pageant liked to be around the big falcons, the Lanners and Peregrine, she would settle nicely in their company and copy their behaviour, they taught her to bathe and preen which she seldom did before kept on her own. She never liked mice much, the main quarry for wild kestrels in addition to other small rodents, but she would welcome a chunk of fresh quail for dinner and pick the bones surgically clean. We imagined this was because she had ideas of grandeur and wanted to be like the big falcons who did not eat mice but dined on far superior French quail! In reality, she struggled with the fatty mouse skin and often left it behind. She loves drinking water to the point that sometimes it has to be rationed, since she was young she has always guzzled water like it was about to run out, blood tests revealed she was perfectly healthy so nothing to worry about, it had simply become a habit. Pageant’s greatest dislike, I would even say hatred, are wild buzzards which visibly fill her with a primeval and instinctive fear. If she hears one calling her long tail will start to flick nervously as though she is on high alert, and if she sees one overhead she will drop her head, shrink her body and look for the nearest escape route. She has never encountered a buzzard at close quarters so has no negative experience association, this is just evolutionary programming to fear that which is larger than you and poses a threat. It never used to be a problem as wild buzzards were few and uncommon in the 80s and 90s, but nowadays they are widespread and seen in multiples – we have had 9 circling and soaring above our own garden. Things are changing and so all our birds, not just Pageant, are having to get used to the increasing presence of common buzzards. And from her deepest hate to her greatest pleasure – travelling! Never can Pageant be seen happier or more content than when she is sat on her travelling perch in the van intensely preening her plumage like a big pompom as we rattle down some motorway. It makes no sense at all – but she thrives on it!
Copyright Emma Raphael 2021.