This is a true story of my late grandfather in his younger days adventures, back in the 1920s, when he went birds’ nesting and returned with a kestrel’s egg.
Nature was taken more notice of back then, without the distractions of smart phones and TVs that now dominate our lives. Although birds’ nesting and looking for rare or any birds’ eggs today is strictly illegal and frowned upon. Of course, back then, it was one of a school boy’s favourite pastimes. My grandfather in Wales when he was younger had many great times and had many memories of good times there.
Hawk Amongst The Pigeons
How often I had heard that proverb ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’, and my very first lesson as to the real meaning of this proverb came at a very early age.
In fact, I was only twelve and the bird in question was a kestrel hawk (Falco-Tinnunculus). I had long admired these miniature falcons, watching them hovering above the Welsh mountainsides and observing their superb dives upon a field mouse or even a beetle. What fantastic sight they possessed, as these dives were very often from a height of a hundred feet. I have heard, or read, that their sight is 50 times better than a human’s. I was drawn to this bird, although I was very fond of other birds as well, but this one could even do what an eagle cannot do – hover in one place in the air. To make this story more interesting, I must just mention that all of what I am writing about took place in the latter years of the 1920s and bird nesting was a school boy’s pastime back then. While some of my mates kept a magpie or a jay for a pet, I wanted something different and my word I did, when I decided to have a kestrel instead of what my mates had chosen.
Firstly, I had to find a kestrel’s nest, which is not easy as strangely enough this bird never builds a complete nest but prefers an old one built the previous year by a magpie or a crow. As there were scores of these old nests in this particular stand of Scotch pines, the question was, which one contained the kestrel’s choice, although most birds give the game away when feeding their young. I learned this in the art of finding hard-to-locate birds’ nests and in this situation it was the shrill cry of the kestrel, “kee leek’ and ‘kee-kee’ that led me to the correct tree. The nearer I came, the more agitated the cries became, so finally I was standing beneath the right tree, which happened to be a 40 ft Scotch Pines.
Now came the difficult part of scaling this tree. A tree of this kind can be very formidable to climb indeed. Those short boughs look easy as hand-holds, but they are deceiving, as quite a few of them are rotten, and it is quite difficult to distinguish between good ones and bad ones. However, my determination to keep something different from what my mates were keeping as a pet gave me the courage to climb this tree.
At last I got to the top without mishap and peered into the nest. From what I could make out, these young kestrels had never seen a human being before and I do not think they liked what they saw either, as they hissed and used their talons even at this tender age. There were four chicks in the nest and I picked out the largest, but of course I needed two hands to get back down to terra firma. There was only one solution as to the transportation of my hawk, so down my shirt he went, then on reaching the base of the tree, out he came and home we went, hawk and boy.
Now my greatest concern was to build a suitable cage for him and the solution to this problem was the local Co-op at Cymmer. One could always buy a tea chest for three pence.
So, the next morning I went down to the Co-op and got my cage without trouble, then called in to see Mr. Prosser the butcher at the said store. Here to my mind was the perfect man for the job, in his white apron with blue stripes and his straw hat jauntily leaning to one side. His moustache was pointed with military precision and that’s also how he treated his tools of the trade, as they shone, thanks to constant cleaning. The pride that this butcher had in his trade and himself was of a quality that still remains fresh in my memory. Even the sawdust on the floor seemed to be at one with his chopping block, as they were known in those bygone days.
I explained why I had come, not with the usual weekly order but my own special request for six pennies worth of scraps. The points of his moustache seemed to wiggle as he listened to my tale about my newly acquired kestrel. Obviously, I gave him all the attributes that this kind of hawk had, but the sixpence in my hand said more than I did as I handed it over the counter. Then once more I watched the art of how to chop meat up as it should be done, with great skill in the hands of a master of his trade, then in no time my bag was full of scraps which were enough to last the week.
“There you are Boyo,” was the comment from Mr. Prosser, “I have sold meat for cats and dogs, but never for a bird of prey.” My trip then to the Co-op had yielded me a cage and six pennies worth of meat scraps. It was a school boy who was very pleased with himself that climbed that steep hill up from Cymmer, way back in the twenties, with a tea chest in one hand and a bag of meat scraps in the other.
No doubt about it, Eric was pleased when he saw the contents of the bag, ‘Eric’ is what I called him, after much deliberation and having recalled a story at school about a viking raider named ‘Eric The Red’. What better name could I give him than this name, because here was a feathered raider of the same calibre as this Viking chief.
I soon had my cage fixed with the aid of a hammer and nails, together with netting wire. The Co-op meat must have suited Eric well as he soon grew into a fine adult bird and I became the envy of my mates, understandably so I thought , as they knew his potential as well as I did, and I took my responsibility towards him very seriously indeed. I did not realise at the time, but so did the pigeon fanciers think about their birds in the same way, as I was soon to learn.
I soon found out from my mates the extent to which pigeon fanciers hated hawks of any kind. I deduced from all this talk that the trouble was their total ignorance of the feeding habits of a kestrel and this led to fanatical hatred of this bird of prey, which led me into trouble.
The Pigeon Association even offered five shillings for a dead hawk, so I realised that I was treading on very dangerous ground. It was a very delicate situation as far as I was concerned, as the local pigeon addicts soon found out that not only was there a cat amongst the pigeons, as the saying goes, but a hawk of all things.
Every Saturday came the ritual of visiting Mr. Prosser for the usual six pennies worth of scraps and a chat. I told him about the danger looming from the local pigeon club and by the time he gave me the scraps he must have thought that he was part of the drama between hawk and racing pigeons. After all, he was providing the good quality meat to keep this so called killer’s voracious appetite satisfied. As time went by I began to wonder if he Eric lost his identity as a bird of prey, having his food provided for him, so one day I put a dead sparrow in his cage and all that wild instinct was only lying dormant, because of circumstances beyond Eric’s control. In a flash it was de-feathered and consumed with a look that seemed to convey the thought of ‘Any second helpings?’
So hawk and boy developed an understanding as time went by and I began to see it from Eric’s point of view as well as my own. I could see those fabulous wings and tail needing more room for stretching. So, out came my pocket knife and I soon shaped out a suitable wooden peg and drove it into our outside wall, which was about fourteen foot high. I got a rubber band and fixed it onto one of his legs, then attached a piece of cord about a yard long which I tied to the peg. So, here was our first act of mutual compromise and it was to lead to trouble – big trouble.
As I took Eric out of his cage and put him on his perch, he took to my hand quite naturally and showed me what those wings were like when fully opened, and preened his feathers. How proud he looked. He had every right to feel this way, after all he was a prince amongst birds, a miniature falcon and his skill on the wing was indisputable.
Soon it was spring again and I noticed that his wings were flapping more than usual as birds were flying over and who knows, he might have seen one of his own kind up in that great blue sky which was his birthright. He certainly seemed more restless at this time. I began to wonder why a bird like this, with such a powerful beak, with which he could tear raw meat into shreds, didn’t with a few short blows, sever the cord as clean as Mr. Prosser with his chopper could slice a piece of meat.
That was the link between Eric and the wild, just a piece of cord. I sometimes wonder if he really wanted to go, but the call of the wild was too strong and a few days later the inevitable happened. I went out one day with a piece of meat and was confronted by just a peg in the wall with about 4 inches of string hanging from it. So, truly the bird had flown; I was sad at this turn of events but not surprised, for who would want to keep him from using those streamlined wings to their full capacity.
With mixed feelings of relief and sadness, I was suddenly pulled up out of these thoughts by a cry from my mate a few doors away, ‘There’s a hawk in the chimney stack!’ As I looked up, there he was, preening his feathers. It seemed to me that he was still undecided whether to take advantage of his new found freedom or not, or was it the quality of the Co-op meat that really mattered. Still, I suppose he was thinking all this out in his own good time and was content to stay where he was for the time being. It was bedtime for me anyway, and I realised that he would probably be gone in the morning (at least that was what I was hoping). As I drifted into a troubled sleep, I couldn’t help thinking that if the Pigeon Association were prepared to pay five shillings for a dead hawk, then I would in a way be responsible for letting one go free with those pigeon fanatics breathing, as it were, down my neck. I remember having a nightmare in which I could see myself in a pigeon basket with a price tag on it marked ‘five shillings’.
One can realise the relief I felt on waking up. Someone must have paid that five shillings , because here I was still in bed. On getting up in the morning and looking outside, my worst fears were realised because there was Eric, still flitting from one chimney stack to another. Now I was in a fine predicament, with just three days to go before one of the biggest pigeon races of the year from Thurso in Scotland. As I was musing on these thoughts, another broadside came from a neighbour two doors away who kept chickens, he threatened me with dire consequences if some of his chicks ended up inside Eric. So, there looked to be trouble ahead. No good going to see my friend Mr. Prosser for advice – expert though he was in carving up meat, but as for the birds, well, even he could be of no avail in a desperate situation such as this. On reflection, it was not a bad idea to see my pal Dick Rowlands, although a pigeon fancier, he was a great pal of mine never-the-less, to see if he had any ideas, as desperate situations call for desperate measures as the saying goes, and two heads are better than one, albeit only two school boys’ heads.
Well, after we discussed the matter in detail, he came up with the brilliant idea of bombarding Eric with stones, with the idea of frightening him away. However, instead of frightening him away, he seemed to enjoy dodging these missiles. There was no trouble in finding stones in this part of the valley, so roofs soon started to echo with this bombardment in the attempt to ensure that all would be well for the big race on Saturday and that those chicks would reach maturity.
Soon heads popped out of back doors and windows and it seemed that instead of easing the situation, we had aggravated it. Then, the gentleman with the hen and chicks issued still more dire warnings in no uncertain manner. So much for Dick’s idea of how to drive away a hawk. We ended up being driven away ourselves by irate neighbours, and no wonder, after that bombardment of local stones upon their roofs.
So things were really desperate now and there seemed no end to the commotion that just one kestrel could cause. It seemed that all of the village was involved, with some no doubt on my side and others for the pigeon fanciers. Still, this was at this stage, cold comfort to me. If only they understood my kestrel’s feeding habits – why they only kill a very small bird the size of a sparrow or skylark and not a bird the size of a pigeon. They also feed on field mice, voles, beetles and lizards. But a hawk seemed to conjure up all sorts of images in their minds, and if they had the same attitude towards cats (who really liked a nice plump pigeon) the village would have soon been overrun with mice. But it was no good dwelling on about cats; as my hawk, who by now must have been getting pretty peckish, as several days had elapsed since his release from my improvised perch was still causing mayhem. I could not help thinking at this time whether or not those chicks were really in danger. The possibility was there as it had been some time now since Eric had been fed. I had not heard of any pigeon being killed so here I was trying to look on the bright side (if there was any). However, I could not help thinking of all the work I had done to ensure that Eric was looked after in a humane way, cleaning out his cage, walking a mile to the Co-op on Saturday mornings, not to mention my sixpence pocket money. Why, I had even pinched the mouse off our cat to give to Eric. I had to chase the cat around the house a few times before the cat gave up, and this is all the thanks I got for all this trouble. “No more hawks for me.” I said to my mate, and his reply was “Well, you have not quite gotten rid of this one yet.” So, much for a good mate.
At last we had an idea, why oh why had we not thought of it before? I dashed home and got a piece of meat and went outside into the garden onto the mountainside and held the meat up high so that Eric could see it. Once more those powerful eyes came into action and down he swooped. While he swooped down near me and while his attention was focused on the meat, my mate grabbed the piece of cord still attached to his leg and the bird was caught good and proper. I could not thank my mate enough for the part he played on that Welsh mountain, and with this bird in the hand, surely after all those trials and tribulations, Eric was worth six birds in the bush. Back in his cage he went and what a relief to see him away from those chimney stacks. This happened just in time for the race of the year on the following day. Those pigeons and their owners could now sleep peacefully in their beds once more and those chicks would reach the ‘laying’ stage after all.
Next morning, which happened to be a Saturday, down I went to see my old friend Mr. Prosser, who thought I had come for my usual scraps, but then I told him about Eric’s escapades. I also told him that my mind was made up that there was only one solution to the problem of keeping a hawk in a village where pigeon racing was the order of the day, and that was to take him back to where he came from – a windswept stand of Scotch pines on a mountain over at Tonmar. So, that was exactly what I did a few days later, right at the very tree on which Eric was born. There was no doubt in my mind that this was the right thing to do.
When I released him, up he soared into the great blue sky, the same sky he had no doubt admired from the peg on our back garden wall.
So, Mr. Prosser had lost a regular order for meat scraps and I had lost my hawk, as the pigeon race went ahead as planned. The upheaval that one boy and a kestrel can cause in a small village is true and that stand of Scotch pines is there even to this day. Five shillings for a dead hawk. But not for Eric, who lived to tell the tale and returned to his own kind, whilst no doubt retaining in his memory those special scraps from the Co-op, thanks to Mr. Prosser.
(Please note: My grandfather in his later years wouldn’t dream of birds nesting and was always kind and respectful with nature and living things)