Nature 2020 October

Observing Shakespeare’s Cytas, Puttocks, Muskets and Standgales

Before coming to live in these villages, nearly 25 years ago, the only time I had been lucky enough to see a Red Kite was in the Swansea Valley around 1980 when we saw a pair of them scavenging some sheep carrion on a hillside. Apart from visits to zoos, it was  at the time certainly the largest bird I had seen in the wild.

Since the 1900s, mid and south Wales had been the Kite’s last safe-haven in the UK. Kites were persecuted by gamekeepers and landowners almost to extinction. Interestingly, in Shakespeare’s day the Kite or Cyta was a very common site in towns and cities, where they were scavengers.  They played an essential role feeding off the remains of butchered meet and discarded carcases from the backstreets and courts of the metropolis. The Kite performed a similar function to that of its cousin, the Vulture, does today on the African plains.

So the sight, if not the benefit, of them above the towns across the Chilterns today is probably not very different to that found in the average 16th century town. After we came to live here it was an exciting day when we saw our first Red Kite circling above our garden. Since then they have become a regular site each day and in the late afternoon regularly grace us with a visit, swooping low over our house and trees. This continues until they can correctly assess which of approach is the appropriate flight-path for that particular day to accommodate the particular speed and direction of the wind to briefly visit our garden.

In recent years we have regularly enjoyed seeing a pair taking to the air together, making good use of the thermals as they rise upwards in ever-widening spirals before heading off in search of food. An extra treat this year, in the absence of noise from droning aircraft and background hum of vehicles, frequently the first we know they are overhead is when we hear them calling to each other with a shrill-pitched weoo-weoo-weeoo.

Within view there is a small mixed clump of oaks and ashes down our valley which provide excellent all-year-round roosting for the Kites. Unfortunately for them, they have to compete for this prime location with a pair of Buzzards that often use these trees as a staging post for their daily forays. Shakespeare used the derogatory word Puttock for both Kites and Buzzards and referred to their propensity to scavenge, or to pick on defenceless animals or birds.

When Buzzards take to the air their soaring capabilities out-score the Kites. They can stall their flight to remain almost motionless as they slowly turn on a sixpence with one wingtip remaining fixed to an imaginary point whilst the other describes almost a perfect circle, before the bird wheels off into the opposite direction. Their call sign is, unlike the Kite, a softer almost melodic one, and transported in the breeze sounds distinctly like a cat mew.  This year aside, it is quite hard to hear above the general hullabaloo at ground level though phonetically it is actually a characteristic ‘kiew-kiew’. For the last few years they have also, on and off, raised at least one chick. These juveniles once fledged can be also heard screeching in a less melodic fashion for a short period in early summer. Presumably, the parents have been weaning them off being fed by them, so encouraging them to fend for themselves.

We have a colony of Jackdaws, with some Rooks living alongside them, which take exception to both the Kites and the Buzzards sharing ‘their domain’. This is a frequent sight in the winter and early spring when the Jackdaws are in courtship mode. Despite minding their own business, several pairs of Jackdaws will try to intercept and mob the Kites or Buzzards as they launch themselves and begin their acrobatic display. Occasionally, Jackdaws will land a hit but more often than not the birds of prey do their best to ignore them, knowing once they reach a certain height they will be able to use the thermals to out-manoeuvre the Jackdaws, or maybe the Jackdaws just get bored terrorising the birds of prey.

Aside from Kites and Buzzards the other two regular visitors are Sparrowhawks and Kestrals. Providing a regular supply and wide variety of bird food significantly increases the populations and diversity of garden birds. Luckily, we are remote enough not to suffer others’ roaming cats, which are a totally unnecessary and the single largest cause of small bird predation in gardens. By wearing a small bell on their collar significantly reduces this predation.

Sparrowhawks remain largely unobtrusive and unseen, except when they launch an attack. Shakespeare made use of the falconer’s word for a male Sparrowhawk a Musket (or fly). The favourite Sparrowhawk attack site in our garden is the bird feeder. Though a close second, at this time of year, are the elderberry bushes where the wood pigeons hang out.

When the Sparrowhawks were rearing their young earlier in the year on average, once a day there would, all of a sudden, be a loud kerfuffle as birds on the feeders scattered in all directions replaced by a very dapper-looking Sparrowhawk perching awkwardly on the top of the feeder. Our bird feeder is close to a rear window so we get a brief but close up view.  Male Sparrowhawks are very striking birds. First you cannot fail to notice the eyes which are a strong yellow and are focussing continuously on everything around them. Second, their matching bright yellow barred breast plumage, with matching feet and talons with specialised elongated toes for grabbing small birds. Its call is a shrill kew kew kew! In flight, the giveaway feature is the long brown and fawn barred tail.

In contrast, the Kestrel, or as known in country lore as a ‘windhover’, and in Shakespeare’s day the very apposite Standgale, is most often seen when hovering motionless, but with the head moving quickly to focus on any movement which might be  prey. If its focus falls on a unsuspecting small mammal, a vole or mouse, the Kestral then drops suddenly to the ground with pale yellow talons outstretched. Between flights they frequently rest up on electricity wires over fields, scrutinising the ground for movement. Males have pinkish brown upper plumage and creamy breast feathers. The female is a mid brown with darker barring. The talons are modified for catching small mammels and birds, though it also supplement its diet with many insects.

Interestingly, I noticed applying the traditional classification system for Birds of Prey, these common local species, the Kite, the Buzzard, the Sparrowhawk (Hawk) and the Kestrel (Falcon) represent four of the nine groups of the Birds of Prey family of birds. In common with all their fellow raptor family members each are highly specialised carnivores but in most other respects they are each examples of their worldwide closely related group of birds.

It has been interesting to discover the relative importance so many birds of prey, including these four, held in the symbolism, imagination and poetry of Shakespeare’s writing. A close affinity with nature reflected in Shakespeare’s use of language that has enriched our vocabulary but perhaps is underappreciated in its everyday use today.

Chris Brown
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