The Barn Owl and the Kestrel.
One weekend morning, my phone rang, waking me at 7am. It was my husband, calling from our field-edge car park, on his way out and for a moment, I was bleary and afraid: something must’ve happened. “Look out the window!” he urged, and when I did, the barn owl floated past the garden gate. It flew directly towards him, rowing through the early morning light, banking over his head. He left, and for the next forty minutes, I watched the barn owl hunting.
It landed on the fence post, turning its devastating, heart-shaped, satellite-dish face to the vole runs (I love you, but you must die!) and dropped in a pounce. It lifted to fly, talons empty, white gold against the dark conifers, between the barn roof, the stable, the oak tree. It quartered the field and glanced by the grazing horses, whose heads came up like springs under pressure. I hadn’t seen or heard the white owl in a while and worried something had happened to it. Had it got a mate? It is so precious – there are so many things that could assail it, all beyond my power to prevent. I daren’t take my eyes off it to make a cup of tea, or even reach for the warmth of my dressing gown. Listening to the radio, watching the owl, I thought about loss, about this past eighteen months, and all that I’m grateful for.
As the sun came up over the wood, it illuminated the owl with a soft white fire. It dropped again from the gatepost, head down, angel wings aloft, and flew out of sight with what was likely a vole. I blinked and tried to hold the image on the back of my eyelids.
Later, I passed beneath the owl box and pictured the bird sleeping within, like a pale, pilaster god, and felt a squeeze of joy. I thought once more, of where everyone was; triangulating my world of concern, love, responsibility: my son at Uni, one daughter out riding horses, the other skateboarding, Mum gardening at home … all spreading away from me, all just out of reach of my protection.
For a week, then, there was no activity at the owl box. I felt a crushing sense of disappointment and worry. A great swathe of the field behind the house had been sprayed off with herbicide, the intention to replant it with flowering plants, as a valuable nectar strip for insects, that grants are given out for. Only, two months later it remains an unplanted sickly yellow, all surface and below-surface life extinguished, all the voles gone, with nothing to replace it. Other work on the farm is more pressing. The barn owl no longer hunts the barren neon strip and the daily sight of the field is hard to live with. Whether its spraying off was the trigger, the lone bird left, presumably to move in with a mate elsewhere, because, to my great relief, I still see and hear it about.
Within a fortnight of the owl box becoming vacant, it became a kestrel nestbox – and a source of drama.
The male’s kee kee kee calls to his mate in courtship food passes become a regular soundtrack, the birds’ tails spread with light, fanned like little fires springing from the oak tree; a row of black coals at their tail-tips, white-hot ash between. Things were looking up.
One mid-week day, the rapid calls came from both birds at once, shouting over one another. All the tender-seeming softness gone to a hard-edged urgency that made me look out – to see a little russet flame chasing a magpie, another wheeling round a pair of jackdaws.
For a day, I heard nothing more.
I presumed corvids had found the eggs to feed their own young, scattering the falcons. The following afternoon, my husband found one of the pair, bedraggled and grounded in the stable yard. He covered it in a tea towel, scooped it up and put it in the stable, where it settled uneasily on the bank of forked-up wood shavings. We took it water, and the only thing we could find – a handful of mealworms.
It seemed unharmed, though reluctant or unable to fly. It had lost a few tail and long flight feathers. I peered quietly round the stable door frame, and could see that it was alert. I tried to take in every detail: its exquisite, fierce yellow bill, the slate darts beneath eyes fringed with circlets of gold; an eclipse of two bright suns. Eyes able to hold a hovering bird pinned to the sky, while its body quivered and beat around it.
The kestrel was still there at dusk, though the mealworms weren’t. Before getting into bed later, I noticed a light blinking through the trees: had I left the stable light on? I tried to read, absorbed in the wonderful Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell; of Agnes (Anne) Shakespeare, her kestrel and her losses, and I couldn’t stop thinking of the little falcon hunched under a glaring light. Moments later, after a sighed, ‘I’ll go’, ‘no, I’ll go’ exchange, me and my husband both traipsed across the windy, starlit field, the lining of our heavy, outdoor coats a strange sensation over bare skin in nightclothes.
The light was out, a blowing branch thickened with blossom having triggered a nearby security light in the farm. A sweep of the lamp round the red-brick and peeling cream paint of the stable walls showed it to be empty. Oddly, there was a toad in place of the kestrel. Whatever it meant, I thought of the toad we’d stepped over, on the church path on our wedding day, years ago. That puffed itself up at our approach (a good sign) and the toad I’d just read about, that Agnes Shakespeare scorned as a remedy for a son dying of the plague, desperately trusting her herbs instead. I wondered what she would have made of this bizarre midnight magic trick; this alchemy, these poisoned fields.
I made a wish anyway and a pledge, for luck: that the kestrels would try again and that we shouldn’t live by fear. It has its place in the evolution of things. It keeps us on our toes. But as a pact of fragility and wonder, hope, and action.