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 21 years old 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 1998, 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.