What is behind the catastrophic decline of our hovering raptor?

It used to be that buzzards and falcons were struggling, while kestrels flourished. Now the situation has reversed and this proud bird faces extinction


One of the hottest theatre tickets in London at the moment is the all-male performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which stars Mark Rylance as Olivia and Stephen Fry as Malvolio. Not a few theatregoers will doubtless head for the Apollo in Shaftsbury Avenue especially to witness Mr Fry: Malvolio, the lonely, pompous, puritanical steward of Lady Olivia’s household, is the figure the play revolves around, and has attracted many a comic thespian, from Ken Dodd to Richard Briers; by all accounts Mr Fry does the role full justice.

The play’s unusually gripping nature, you may remember, stems from the fact that the insufferable Malvolio is the victim of a practical joke, and deservedly so, but it is a caper which goes too far; in the end it ain’t funny any more, and the critic John Wain once memorably said that in this comedy “a cold wind is blowing from the tragedies”.

The joke is to make Malvolio believe Olivia his boss is in love with him, by leaving a forged letter for him to find; and once he has found it, he is dumbfounded and overwhelmed by the possibilities, while the hidden but onlooking practical jokers can scarcely believe how completely he has been hoodwinked by the document written, in fact, by the maidservant Maria:


FABIAN: What dish o’ poison has she dressed him!

SIR TOBY BELCH: And with what wing the staniel checks at it!


Look for a moment at the second line. It will almost certainly go over the heads of everyone watching Stephen Fry, bound up in his sudden dream of love and riches, not least because of the word staniel. It’s a word now lost to us. It’s easy to think it’s just some archaic Elizabethan insult, like knave or varlet, perhaps related to spaniel; but although it is indeed archaic, it has a specific meaning.

Staniel is the old English word for the kestrel, the hovering falcon, while the word checks is a precise term from falconry, meaning hovers. Shakespeare is giving us a brief but vivid image of Malvolio hovering over every word in this letter which offers him a future beyond his most ambitious dreams.

Staniel is long forgotten now; our modern English name for the bird comes from the French crécerelle, and I was put in mind of all this recently on a weekend trip to Normandy, where I was delighted to find kestrels hovering all over the place, not least above motorway verges: on a 50-mile stretch of the A28 which runs between Alençon and Rouen, I counted 18 of them.

Motorway twitching

Twenty years ago, this was also a typical sight on the M1, M4 and M6, so much so that the kestrel became nicknamed the motorway falcon; the long, undisturbed grass verges, even with heavy traffic thundering past, had turned out to be perfect hunting grounds for the voles and mice on which kestrels feed.

But today it would be a rare occurrence indeed to spot 18 kestrels in 50 miles of the M1, for the bird is increasingly in trouble in Britain, with its numbers dropping by 32 per cent in the years between 1995 and 2010, and a staggering 36 per cent decline just between 2008 and 2009.

In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when birds of prey such as peregrine falcons and buzzards were struggling because of pesticide poisoning and persecution, kestrels were flourishing; but now the situation is reversed, and they are the most threatened of our common raptors.

No one really knows why, although the best guess is a decline in their small mammal prey. There is also the possibility, so far uninvestigated, that the striking resurgence of buzzards and peregrines may have affected them: kestrels bred on Chichester Cathedral for decades until peregrines ousted them. Whatever the reason, the disappearance from much of the countryside of the windhover, as Gerard Manley Hopkins called the bird in his famous poem, is a great loss; I grew up watching the marvel of this falcon staying in one place in mid-air, as, quite obviously, did the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, more than 400 years ago.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Into the blue: Alex Salmond resigned as First Minister and SNP leader in Edinburgh on Friday  

Scottish referendum gives hope for the dawn of a new, cleaner politics

Kenneth Roy
A supporter of the Kurdistan Workers' Association holds a placard during a demonstration against Islamic State (IS) in front The Hague  

Nothing will stop Isis except a Syrian truce

Patrick Cockburn
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam