My father was a peripatetic music teacher. His colleague kept hawks and falcons. I was obsessed with birds. I would pine to visit my father’s colleague. When the colleague gave up his job and enrolled in university, he had no time. I was told I could take his kestrel on.
It was a responsibility. A kestrel is not domestic. The one time I tried affection the bird put his beak through my lip.
I weighed the kestrel daily and fed it accordingly on dead day-old chicks that came in sodden packs. I flew him to a lure made with pheasant wings. If a vivid sensation survives from that time, it’s his contact with the lure. The force of the intent.
On the days I walked to school, the weather willing, I let the kestrel free and he followed, perching on telegraph poles en route. From maths I’d see him flash over the trees at the brow of the hill. When I walked home, he would appear.
There was a degree of celebrity to having the kestrel, but I was turning adolescent. I began to take less care. I made excuses to avoid flying him. I didn’t carry him as often. Sometimes, I simply threw a chick within reach of the wooden block he perched on, and left.
I saw the kestrel, perhaps, as part of the child I was trying to grow away from. When I understood that, I reconnected a little, albeit tinged with guilt.
He’d been out for an hour or so one afternoon when I called him in with a chunk of liver. It slipped from the glove as he tugged it and he carried the whole piece away. Fed, he would not come back.
That evening, the wind got up. I watched helplessly as he lifted from a perch at the top of the garden and went off.
In the following days we searched exhaustingly. Eventually the police phoned. The kestrel was at a farm some miles away. The relief, when he came straight to me, was obliterated by what came next.
The kestrel started to shake. He collapsed, continually. I tried to keep him warm, but hours after getting him home, the kestrel was dead. It’s likely, starving, he’d eaten a poisoned carcass.
Barring a cat, I’ve not kept an animal since. I fill the bird feeders. I sit on the cliff and watch peregrines. That’s enough.