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Laying a network of surveillance cameras to watch kestrels in the garden
I’m not really into watching the television, but this month I have been glued to the box. I’ve set up CCTV cameras in a kestrel nest box and it has had me entranced.
I have been putting out food for a pair of wild kestrels since 2006 in my garden and it has given me a fascinating insight into their lives. This pair is rather like a long-standing married couple and remains together throughout the year even in winter when many birds normally part ways. But the CCTV footage has provided me with proof that they endure their own share of relationship dramas!
Although they still hunt for their own food, they enjoy the food parcels of dead mice and day old chicks that I put out for them at a special feeding station. They know when I whistle that their food is there – it’s a great party trick! And if I’ve forgotten to put some food out and they are hungry, they do an obvious ‘fly by’ in annoyance, as they know I can see them from my studio and living room windows. Sometimes, when I’m busy with paintings it acts as a good reminder. They are so happy here that they have even nested in my garden but usually they prefer a site 70 yards away in a nest box I put up for them in a sycamore tree.
But whilst I know nearly everything there is to know about these kestrels what I have yet to discover is what exactly happens in the secret world inside the nest box. Up until now it was like a missing piece of a jigsaw.
So last month I ordered hundreds of metres of armoured cat 5 cable and infrared cameras. I was not only going to watch kestrels but install cameras in nest boxes of barn owls, tawny owls and little owls too.
Putting it all in place has been a logistical challenge, especially as the mild spring has prompted the kestrels and tawny owls to prospect the nest boxes early. I didn’t want to disturb them, so enlisted the help of my friend Adam Brown and worked under the cover of darkness so we could go undetected.
Watching the pairs of birds find and choose nest boxes is rather akin to an episode of ‘Escape to the Country’ where loved-up couples choose from a selection of properties for sale. In this case, different nest boxes are viewed and tried out for size or rejected off-hand.
Last month a bidding war between nest boxes broke out – the tawny owls had decided to take over the favourite haunt of the kestrels. The kestrels seemed to be incensed, mobbing the tawny owls daily and calling in annoyance. But the tawny owls stood fast, they seem to be stubborn creatures and seemingly hard to shift.
So the kestrel had to consider what else was on the market. The next best option seemed to be the nest box in my garden. And I was delighted to see them investigating that particular box one morning as I drew the curtains. They guarded this box for a week from marauding jackdaws who wanted to book in for a viewing. Yet the kestrels continued to occasionally mob the tawny owls as a menacing reminder of what it would be like to live next to unruly neighbours.
The persistence of the kestrels seemed to be wearing the tawny owls down and they moved to another nest site further afield. The kestrels didn’t waste time and soon after I saw them going in and out of their number one choice.
We needed to get cracking if we were to set up cameras for this breeding season. First we dug trenches and buried cables that run from the nest box back to the house. Then we had to link the footage up to television screens in my studio, house and gallery. Several days and nights work later we had ‘nest cams’ installed in three nest boxes as well as at two feeding stations.
All of this activity didn’t faze the kestrels, who remained fixed on the nest box. Yet I knew from past experience that it wouldn’t be the end of the story. Two years ago as soon as the kestrels had laid an egg they were ousted by a male tawny owl who stood stubbornly outside their box and refusing them entry but later the kestrels went on to lay a clutch of eggs in the garden nest box.
I turned on the screen for the first time and my heart nearly skipped a beat to see the male kestrel inside the box. He walked to the back of the box where the camera was and laid down, flicking his feet to form a kestrel-sized nest scrape. He was calling his mate and eventually the female arrived at the entrance. He bowed his head over and over again as if to say, ‘c’mon look how well suited this one is.’
She called back at him as if to reply ‘alright I’ll give it a go, move up a bit’ and she ushered him out of the way. She sat down on the nest scrape that the male had dug moments earlier and looked less than impressed by his handiwork. She had found an uncomfortable bit on one side and started to peck it. Next she found a big bit of bark not to her liking and she grasped it between her talons and tried to break it up into smaller and more suitable pieces.
The male was very taken with this nesting site, but over the next few days you could tell that the female didn’t feel it was quite up to standard. It didn’t help that most days 8 or so noisy and aggressive jackdaws were hassling them to give up the site. Jackdaws have similar nesting requirements to kestrels and in spite of the fact they prospect nests sites later, they use mob rule to evict residents. One day I counted 26 jackdaws ousting the kestrels from the box. The female kestrel had had enough and went off for a viewing in another nest box just two trees down in a huge elm tree stump that I had converted into a nest box and put up a few years earlier.
The male was quite impressed with the female’s new choice – it was certainly too large to be of interest to jackdaws and he quickly laid down and dug a fresh nest scrape, so that the female would be able to ‘visualise’ the space better. Yet the female seemed to think it would possibly be ‘a touch too big’ and ‘unmanageable.’
On the TV screen I watched her strutting around and picking fault with where he had dug the nest scrape. She made one for herself on the other side of the box, which seemed in a rather ill-suited position. The male wasn’t just tolerant and patient of all this nit-picking but thoroughly submissive to the female. He called to her in the nest box as if to say ‘everything alright, dear’ and sometimes appeared with a thoughtfully-caught mouse or vole for her as an offering. He didn’t hang about for long though, she shooed him away and he left bowing his head in deference.
After a lot of trying out, the female decided it just wasn’t going to be suitable after all and flew down the valley looking at three different prospective sites in hollow ash trees. None of these were covered by nest cams, although when I peered in one night I could see that a nest scrape had been dug in each one and tried out for size. And in the meantime the jackdaws moved in to the first nest box. It made me so annoyed to see these jackdaws nesting in the box on screen all day. I really did feel like switching the camera off altogether.
Like the presenter of Escape to the Country I was starting to feel frustrated by the female kestrel that didn’t seem to be able to make up her mind and was just finding fault with everything she came across! I think the male was starting to feel the strain too – he was thinking more practically about how far his commute would be from these nest sites to the food I put out for them in my garden. It was all location, location, location as far as he was concerned, especially as he frequently gets mobbed for food by crows on his journey.
A stand-off between the couple ensued. The male favoured the large elm stump and she favoured one of the trees down the valley. They sat apart for a whole 12 hours each outside their chosen nest site. By the end of the day the male was starting to look dejected and by evening he gave in and took her some food. He passed her a morsel of food which she accepted and they made up by mating.
During courtship, not only is the male responsible for guarding the nest site she has chosen but he also has to supply her with food to prove he can later provide for all the family once the chicks are born. Luckily, for him I help him out on that front – so it isn’t such hard work.
Yet the male hadn’t given in completely. The following day I watched as the female flew at the male in annoyance with her talons outstretched as he still had his heart set on the large elm stump which was closer to my garden. She met him halfway on this – although she had now decided she would go for the first box – in spite of the fact that it was now half full of twigs that jackdaws had put in.
It was quite comical watching her going into this box filled with twigs and now completely impractical and attempting to snuggle down into what must have been a very uncomfortable nest scrape. The male chased the jackdaws away and looked into the nest box. I could almost see him roll his eyes before he valiantly tried to remove a few of the tangle of twigs.
I thought it was time to give them a helping hand and that night got my ladder out and pulled out all the sticks that the jackdaws had put in. I put a bag of fine bark chips into each nest boxes to get rid of any uncomfortable bits for the female too for good measure. Kestrels don’t carry nesting material so this would have been a very welcome treat for them.
The following morning I could see the kestrels battling with two very annoyed and newly evicted jackdaws. The jackdaws were flying into the box and taking out beaks full of my newly laid wood chips. But events turned serious, when I saw the kestrel going into the box followed closely by a thuggish looking jackdaw. On screen, I watched the kestrel grab at the jackdaw and with their feet locked on to each other they tussled about in the box. The jackdaw was on top pecking the kestrel, the next second the kestrel seemed to be winning.
But the tables were turned when a second jackdaw came on the scene. The female tried to distract this second one by grabbing at it, but it entered the box regardless. This was going to be a fight to the death. It was difficult to watch. Five minutes of fighting went on and both were getting tired. I ran down to the box and clapped my hands, and succeeded in frightening one of the jackdaws away. I could hear the kestrel screaming, but they wouldn’t loosen their grips on each other so I ran back for a ladder. It was only when I put my ladder up against the tree that they separated and flew off.
The female returned to guard the site half an hour later, but the male kept clear for three hours as if he was trying to entice her further away. But the female, who hadn’t been on the sharp end of the jackdaw’s beak, had decided it was worth fighting for.
I knew this nest cam project was going to be interesting but I had no idea what great viewing it would make not just for me but also those that work in the gallery and also for my two young children, who are delighted that they are now allowed to watch TV while we are eating at our kitchen table.
This morning the first egg was laid by the female in the first box while I was making breakfast. “An egg,” I shrieked, and called my daughter Lily to come and have a look. “Is it a chocolate one?” she asked. It certainly looked chocolate coloured on screen. “No it’s a real one” I explained. We both looked back at the screen intently, amazed at what we were seeing. Lily piped up “It’s our special egg for Easter, isn’t it Daddy?” It certainly was.
Kestrels lay their eggs at two-day intervals. The female normally lays a clutch of up to 6 eggs in total. Incubation takes 27-29 days per egg, which hatch over a period of a few days. The chicks require constant brooding for the first 10-14 days, after which they are able to control their own body temperature.
In the nest
The male provides the female and the chicks with food throughout the nesting period. Only as the young get bigger, can she safely start to hunt close to the nest.
Author: Robert E Fuller