My farm in Gregory was named Reva Ridge (after my beloved dog Reva, and because the property was on a high hill; and there was a famous race horse named Riva Ridge… See how I did that?) and there was a barn I had designed myself. I decided to extend the roof to include an overhang outside the stalls, to offer shade during the day and additional shelter from rain. There were three stalls, two for my horses and one convenient extra. I usually was able to fill it, because it seemed there was always a horse in need of a place to land.
One of my temporary residents was a third Morgan named Zach who had some nervous habits. He was much taller than both Clifford and Trudy. He could reach up and touch the underside of the extended roof. He tore out a section of it, leaving a small hole in the shape of a rectangle. When the grass came up, he had several acres of pasture to work on, so he thankfully gave up on the extracurricular chewing.
Clifford’s stall was the one closest to the door, on the left. I went in for the morning feed and was surprised to see a bird flash up over his wall. I walked outside and looked up just in time to see it disappear into the hole.
I walked across the back yard, into the basement got out the step ladder. The bird heard the commotion and it flurried a quick escape. I recognized it to be an American Kestrel.
I climbed up on the ladder and poked my head through the hole. I felt a thrill shoot down my spine. Nestled into a pile of straw and fluff were four speckled eggs.
The following week, I tried not to disturb the birds as I did my chores.
Among all raptors, the kestrels were my favorite with their bright colors and large, brilliant eyes. I had fantasies of training a bird to fly to my glove. Growing up in the deep woods of the Eastern UP had afforded me many opportunities to see raptors in action. One of my favorite books was, “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean Craighead George. It told of a kid who lived in a hollow tree in the wilderness. He adopted a baby falcon and taught her to hunt.
I thought this was the coolest experience ever. I wanted to live in a tree and survive off the land. I wanted a bird of my own. I even loved her name, “Frightful.”
Over the coming days I saw both parent kestrels coming and going. When they started delivering clearly visible dragonflies and other insects, I knew the babies had hatched. So I pulled out the ladder again and climbed up to the hole. This time, above my head, I noticed the pocked, clay-colored shell constructed by a batch of angry yellow jackets. The bees swirled around my hair as I peered into the alcove. I could see the babies, white puff balls, staring at me in horror. One of them opened its beak and hissed.
I didn’t touch the baby birds. Their round ugly heads wobbled and waved as they stared right back at me. Finally, I descended the ladder.
The following weeks presented a moral dilemma. Here was my chance to nab one of those babies and raise a Frightful of my own. But I researched and learned that most of the raptors in rehab centers had been taken from their nests as hatchlings and could never be released into the wild. They hadn’t learned to survive.
I couldn’t do it.
Instead, I got to witness the four young kestrels as
they lined up on the pasture fence, with the parents dodging and darting around
them, feeding them and teaching them to hunt. I heard their high, shrill calls
and thought I would never forget what a kestrel sounds like.
It was midsummer when the adult male bird landed on the ground outside my kitchen window. We locked eyes. He sat there for a long time just looking at me. Then he flew off.