By alicebg, Apr 24 2012 7:32AM
(image via rspb.org)
Birds are the unquestioned (by me, at least) acme of nature, and the unquestioned acme of birds are the raptors. Birds of prey are gorgeous, spectacular killing (or scavenging) machines - self-aware fighter aircraft, honed by evolution from seriously accomplished ancestral stock. They are, essentially, predatory dinosaurs with air combat capability and proportionately bigger brains - no wonder we've spent so many centuries trying to exterminate them.
The health of an ecosystem is measured by its top predators, and over much of England that means raptors. There was a time, not so very long ago - when I was a very small child, in fact - that this country very nearly lost all its birds of prey. Relentless persecution from the unholy alliance of farmers and gamekeepers had reduced populations to relict status, or even - in the case of the Red Kite - to zero. Then came DDT, and a steady build-up of toxins through the natural food chain that threatened to take out what little remained. It took years of conservation, legislation and re-education to first stem, then reverse the tide - and right in the forefront of that recovery was the Kestrel.
The Kestrel has a semi-mythical status in the UK, mainly thanks to to Barry Hines' novel A Kestrel For a Knave, or, more precisely, the film Kes that was adapted from it. Pretty much everyone from my generation both saw the film and read the book in school, being made suitably depressed in the process. But we grew up loving Kestrels.
The Kestrel is not only our most common raptor, it is by far the easiest to observe, especially given its habit of hunting at low level, often by the side of busy roads. It is also completely unmistakeable on account if its unique ability to come to a hover and survey the ground below - other raptors are capable of limited hovering, but they need a pretty stiff headwind in order to do so; the Kestrel doesn't. It's a jaw-dropping trick, and if you don't appreciate it then you are clearly immune to the entire concept of aerobatics.
Kestrels are small and sleek, with the flying speed to match. The males are exquisite with their grey heads and brick red backs; the females less striking but beautifully mottled and a fraction larger. To see either, be it by a road, over a marsh or on open heathland, is to be reassured that, at least for now, our nature is healthy and vibrant.
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