Bees Pigeons Raptors

Bees, Pigeons and Raptors

In 1985 we had a Newsletter article about life with hawks from a parishioner who is a keen falconer. It called to mind the long-standing association of parishioners with bees and pigeons. Most cottages had their hive or two of bees. Nowadays the Saunders of Lime Kilns, the Vicar, the nuns at the Convent, Tom Done, the Harpers and others keep up the tradition of bee-keeping. In recent years Cyril Davies was a famous pigeon fancier whose birds were loved and cossetted, one of them sadly flying back to its comfortable home loft after they had to be sold. Mr Wilf Cook, too, was a pigeon keeper of renown – a bird of his breeding having gone to the Queen’s loft. But hawks are something special, and Peter Scourse from his cottage opposite the Convent writes:

Our main objective has always been the keeping and training of hunting hawks, but in the course of so doing one develops a strong rapport with the hawk and to a large extent training is a two-way process. Whilst we have been training them to respond to our signals, so have they been training us to respond to their cues. We learnt to know which foods they preferred, when they were keen to hunt, and the days when they felt ‘off-sorts’ and, indeed, failure to understand these coded messages leads to birds which go missing, causing the falconer a great deal of worry, exercise and inconvenience.

Drawing: Helen Scourse

Casualties of the hawk world tend to end up on one’s doorstep – a growing stream which passes through our hands is brought to us with broken wings or legs by local veterinary surgeons or members of the public. After initial treatment they require a period of three weeks or so convalescence for bones to knit together. Others may have had flying accidents in high winds, and more recently we have received what appear to be the victims of some form of poisoning. Some will have become low in condition through parasites or lack of hunting skills. Even the damage of few flight feathers affects their chances of survival. Most, however, get returned to the wild to resume their careers and I know of few more heart-warming experiences than when, months later, a wild bird distinguishable only by its ring or by some peculiarity of plumage, turns momentarily from its path in the sky to ‘look you up’ and you recognise a former patient.

Some birds, like the little owl ironed by traffic into the tarmac of a motorway and held there by its wing, do not recover sufficiently to be released and stay with us as pensioners, like honoured veterans at Chelsea Hospital. Some may breed and their offspring may succeed them into the wild. Without the initial skills gained as falconers we should not have developed either the know-how or the patience to care for the casualties. Always you have to be unsparingly cool and calm both in deed and thought as they are quick to detect irritation or haste, and then withdraw their co-operation.

It is easy to understand why falconry was seen as an essential part of the medieval knight’s education, and one often feels, as one is coaxing a badly injured bird to feed in the small hours of the night, a strange kinship with those who chose to serve in such military orders as the Templars or the Teutonic Knights.

Whatever else it might be, it is not an occupation for the squeamish or house-proud. Various types of suitable food need to be prepared eg mice have to be reduced to beak-sized portions for the invalid. The airing cupboard or the bathroom (as being warm and quiet places) have frequently to be given over to the injured – our bathroom is now home to two little owls and a sparrowhawk – and convalescence and pre-release pens need to be constructed for the process of active rehabilitation. Some hawks who come to grief at an early stage in their development even need to be taught how to hunt, and this can take a good deal of time and patience. All these activities become much more difficult if undertaken on one’s own, and the presence of a skilled and motivated partner is essential….!

[Note: Mrs Helen Scourse is a talented and highly individual painter of birds and wild life.]

[from: Penallt – A Village Miscellany]