The Rainbow Squadron
A couple of lads, working on a farm near Lowestoft, found four newly hatched kestrels (exactly how and where they were found is a bit of a mystery !). Their employer told them to throw the chicks into a ditch but the lads had a better idea.
They took them to the falconer at Fritton Lake who was able to keep them alive until we could collect them.
We were then faced with the twin problems of keeping the chicks alive and well fed but without imprinting them.
One of the difficulties of raising very young chicks is the monitoring of their development. The best way is by recording weight gain but in this case we had four, apparently identical, youngsters to deal with. How could we be sure that one wasn’t failing?
One option was to keep the chicks separated but we needed to keep them together as a family, partly for mutual comfort, partly to help them to keep warm (as they would in the wild) but mainly to reinforce their own sense of “kestrel-ness”.
In the end the solution was both elegant and simple (if a bit undignified) – we painted them!
Each youngster was colour coded with a blob of marker ink on the top of the head. Red, blue, yellow and nothing. The rainbow squadron had arrived!
We were now able to record how much food each chick was taking and the amount of weight each was putting on each day. The next problem was how to feed them without imprinting them. This is always difficult with very young birds that can’t yet tear their own food. To minimise the association between food and humans, they were fed with chopped mouse using a pair of tweezers held in a hand dressed in a sock. As soon as they could feed themselves from whole mice, these were delivered without them seeing anyone.
As the babies grew, it became apparent that one of them (Yellow) wasn’t growing as fast as the others. A trip to the vet resulted in a clean bill of health so all we could do was make sure that he (or she!) was getting a full share.
Basically, he turned into a little pig, stuffing himself to sleep at every feed, and soon started to outgrow his siblings. The value of the colour-coding had been established. Without it, there would have been a real danger of Yellow becoming too weak to compete. This way his chances were at least trebled.
Eventually, all the youngsters started to develop their flight feathers and it was time to get them into the wild where they belonged.
They were hacked out together with another, slightly older, kestrel some weeks later. All four members of the Rainbow Squadron had made it! As for the imprinting, only one of the quartet – probably Yellow – stayed around for a long time after release whilst food was still being provided but eventually even he returned less frequently until, at last, he broke the ties and became truly wild.
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