‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre.
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;’
‘The Second Coming’ by William Butler Yeats
I was entirely unprepared in February 2012, when I saw a peregrine falcon stooping low near a patch of woods in the Kentish Stour Valley. I was pike fishing on the tidal river somewhere near the village of Minster when I first saw it. The roses of the mid-afternoon sky had just burnished into those stunning fire-lit ambers that dominate the lowland sunsets more than anywhere else. She appeared like one of those animated Ray Harryhausen models you see in the old movies. All around us, the sky was in flames and the valley, recovering from a recent flood, resembled a cauldron boiling molten bronze.
The whole atmosphere in which she flew gave rise to a flickering effect, like a fireplace’s dying embers or the traces of the morning’s last dream. I think the bird was a ‘she’, as when the creature got closer, I could see a large fluffy and distinctly creamy chest. But I knew I’d seen a peregrine. Thunder-blue, she feinted and spiralled several times until finally she stooped and crashed to earth. I then lost sight of her. Afterwards, I saw only the lilt of what seemed like thousands of feathers, some floating as high as forty yards in the air. And I heard only the lament of the wood pigeons as they prepared to go to roost- one member lighter.
For me, the English countryside would never be the same again.
These days, I see lots of birds of prey in my part of the world- often when driving. I’ve renamed the road next to old Manston Airport ‘Kestrel Alley’; I once counted five of them hovering in various places alongside it. The ‘A’ road that connects the Isle of Thanet to the rest of England used to be devoid of raptors, but now there are many types. Last winter when I was approaching the outskirts of Faversham, I saw a huge buzzard sitting atop a street light; he was motionless and staring down at the oncoming traffic like some mute shaman. Then in the spring I fell asleep in a section of the Blean Woods not far from where I saw the buzzard, only to awaken and observe a solitary hobby staring down at me from a dead oak tree.
The second coming of the peregrines gathered pace in the years just prior to the third millennium. Then, in the early 2000’s, a pair landed in Regent’s Park, London. Just a decade and a half later, London has the second largest tribe of urban peregrines anywhere on the planet. Following the demise of DDT and other farm chemicals harmful to them, the peregrines soon lived up to the dictionary definition of their forename by spreading out all over the country. According to the local birding community, the pair at St George’s Church first lived inside the derelict power station tower at Richborough, in the farmland just outside of Ramsgate.
The birds are natural romantics, preferring to dwell in abandoned old buildings, ancient church spires and windswept clifftops. So the legend goes, they left the power station a week before it was demolished in the spring of 2012 and the first of the peregrines arrived at St George’s a few weeks thereafter. It’s a lovely story- and perhaps true. The timeline is broadly accurate. Certainly, any prolonged tampering from humans will result in most bird species beating a hasty retreat. Regardless of however many weeks it took to set the charges at Richborough, a healthy peregrine would take a matter of instants to associate a demolition crew with imminent danger and evacuate accordingly. When disturbed, the birds will usually retreat to one of several other sites that they know locally. Somewhere high, suitably gothic and cosy; after all, ‘home’ is not a concept exclusive to humanity. At the very least, St George’s has functioned as a ‘pied-à-terre’ ever since.
These days, the birds let me watch them. Just about… I’ve nicknamed my regular raptor- ‘Millie’. She’s the falcon: the female- and larger- of the species; although it’s not always easy to tell them apart unless they fully reveal themselves. She will usually allow me a few minutes before turning her back on me (nature’s ultimate show of defiance) or flying around to the other side of the tower. At first, both birds played a bit of ‘Kilroy Was Here’ with me; remember those doodles we used to draw in our school books of a little face, only half revealed, peering up over a wall?
Recently I turned up with a telephoto lens. Personally, I’m a chronic technophobe and have nicknamed my latest bit of kit ‘Darth Nikon’. It’s a very heavy, dark coloured bit of kit to be lugging around wild places; I take photographs for these passages, but have never really gotten used to taking any camera out into the field.
I’ve managed some fair shots, but the peregrines clearly sense my awkwardness. When I uploaded my initial photographs, it was unnerving to see the birds looking alert, disturbed- and very clearly staring directly down the lens eye. I can’t be sure whether it’s the difference in my approach- or the addition of the camera kit. Peregrines, rightly, will never be fully comfortable around mankind; from way up high, however, they can tolerate a consistent pattern of human comings and goings. But should an anomaly be introduced to this rhythm, the birds will always react sharply. Once I’d appeared half a dozen times with the new lens, they seemed to relax; in fact, I got most of my better shots back when they were more suspicious and staring right at it. Now the birds are accustomed to me turning up with a camera, they rarely glance my way for longer than a micro-second.
Accepting the presence of death is something that comes much more easily to the animal kingdom than to humanity. Up and down the country, the peregrines now live alongside us, which is perhaps the most remarkable nature story of my lifetime. More fascinating though, is their relationship with the various other local bird species, particularly the legion of pigeons that have no problem at all residing in the church’s graveyard. Some will even occupy the steeple when their masters are absent; they invite oblivion- especially if the returning falcon has an empty belly. For the rest of the time, they huddle about the lower roofs of the main church hall- only ever a ‘stoop’ away from certain death.
Some individual instinct persists. For example, when a peregrine does descend, the resulting explosion of feathers will belong not only to the departed pigeon- but also to their scrambling comrades, who in that moment will do everything they can to escape. But it’s a base reaction- and nowhere near as strong as their loyalty to the cult of death, to which they will soon eagerly return; queuing up and jostling to live within its boundaries. This behaviour is mirrored in many other parts of the natural world; it’s the reason why good pike fishermen usually start off as good roach anglers- because if you can consistently find the latter fish, the former won’t be far away. Without a pike to keep the numbers down, the roach soon overpopulate and become stunted. Both species understand this and embrace death as surely as they do the flow of the river.
The rose-ringed green parakeets are a little smarter; you won’t find one in St George’s, whilst you will be mobbed by them almost everywhere else in Ramsgate. But unlike the peregrines (regardless of how long they’ve been absent) they’re not an established part of the English ecology- so they don’t yet know the rules.
I do see greenfinches here, though; in good numbers, too. Up the hill at St Laurence Church, where there are no peregrines, you frequently see parakeets. But never greenfinches- not ever. I don’t come across them anyway; I know they must get spotted in there but they’re in no way prevalent. As much as I love the parrots (and I’m sure they can be a success if we manage them) I think they’re disturbing an ancient balance. Sadly, I recently heard someone on the news get called a ‘racist’ for drawing a similar conclusion about the birds.
How silly that is. The animal kingdom has entirely different values to our own. I agree with the RSPB’s ‘Wait and See’ approach on the parakeets; I’d never wish to condemn such a beautiful creature- particularly one that, like the peregrine, alerts so many humans to the natural world. But we’ve interfered with our wildlife so much that we simply can’t now adopt a ‘laissez faire’ policy towards it. This ‘green’ rationing with regards to the relative numbers of parakeets and greenfinches may sound bonkers, but it’s just one of several small ways in which I think they’re impacting on my local patch. And in the best tradition of British amateur naturalism, eccentric observations are important.
The roach and pigeons of the world do not possess the individual intelligence of the parrots- but I’m convinced that they are ‘genus’ thinkers, possessed of an atavistic pack mentality that serves the greater good of their kind. The parakeets win reprieve from individual death but in the long run they risk that paramount of all toxins: overbreeding… Just look at mankind: On the evolutionary road, we’re a band of travelling revellers- ignorant to nature’s realities; by contrast, the roach, pike, peregrine and pigeons share a much more sophisticated balance with the everlasting. We’re running out of room for space to bury our dead, even.
The supreme irony is that our graveyards provide the perfect hunting grounds for the peregrines. In terms of convenience, churches are like the KFC of the raptor world. Where else will a bird of prey find abundant supplies of fresh pigeon meat? With gothic towers and cloistered woodlands all within close proximity? Up and down the country, churches and cathedrals are unwittingly providing a free B&B service for peregrines; the Church of England needn’t have installed gargoyles- because there is no ghost that a falcon can’t scare off. All an aspiring peregrine chief need do is land on a suitable spire, build a nest and then play ‘defend the tower’.
The chap who keeps the spire at St George’s read my first account of the church’s peregrines and told me about the huge piles of pigeon carcasses he finds on the steeple mount when he goes up there- once every six months. I’d love to go and take a look.
But in the mean time, I’ll keep watch from down below.
And like the pigeons- try not to get too consumed.