[Translator's Note: The birds referred to in this article are lesser kestrels - cernícalo primilla (Falco naumann) – which are slightly smaller and much rarer than the common kestrel.]
In the castle of Alcalá, in Santo Domingo and on the crags, there were lots of kestrels. There were healthy colonies of these falcons because there had always been food for birds of prey. They are from the family falconidae, birds that hunt by day, of medium size (30-40 cm), with the habit of hovering, moving the body from side to side in flight, in order to dive vertically and take the victim by surprise. They have a short, curved beak and a stocky head, and the plumage depends on ithe sex. The male is a brownish-red colour, with black marks on its back; the upper part of the head and the tail are blueish-grey, and the feet are yellow with black claws. The female is lighter-coloured with transverse stripes.
The name “cernícalo” comes from the verb “cerner” or “cernir”, to catch small rodents for food. It has also been given the name “primillas”. On the subject of names, I never knew why the family of a brother-in-law of mine were called “Los Primillas”. And sometimes I heard Don Manuel Marchante call certain children “ cernícalo”. On reflection, I think he was referring to children who did not apply themselves. Regarding the brother-in-law, I never found out where that came from, unless it was to do with the success these birds had when hunting.
We youngsters liked to go up to the castle, check out the nests and take a kestrel chick to raise it. Once I was lucky and managed to get one. It was covered in white down, like cotton wool. I knew from the other kids what sort of food it needed; crickets, scraps of meat, small reptiles, baby birds, mice and other small rodents. They soon got used to whatever they were fed. In Alcalá the kestrels lived in urban colonies, but they also inhabited the mountains and the game reserves.
That white plumage was soon shed and the kestrel reached the stage where it was ready to attempt to fly. One boy said it was best to cut off the tips of its wings, so it couldn't fly away, and to paint it red or green like a parrot, in case it escaped. In the back yard of our house was a drain where the dirty water ran out. The kestrel prowled around the opening and put an end to all manner of insects and vermin. My little brothers and I used to piss and shit in that drain. One day, I was squatting down doing my business and without my noticing, the kestrel came up and pecked me on the willy. It made me jump and I made such a noise that my father came over straight away, and seeing that the kestrel was attacking my privates he swiped at it then kicked it up onto the roof, and I never saw my falcon again. I cried for two reasons; firstly because the pecking had left me with a sore willy, and secondly because I had grown fond of the kestrel.
I missed that life of contact with nature when we left Alcalá and went to live in larger cities; the flora used to decorate the houses, and the fauna which became household pets. Sometimes I recalled those memories of Alcalá as something wonderful which could never be reproduced anywhere else. When I come back to the town, I go up to the Plaza Alta and look at the castle tower, where you can still see the odd kestrel, but there are only a few left, very few. I am going to ask the mayor to declare them a species in danger of extinction.
Translated by Claire Lloyd
Crónicas del ambiente alcalaíno (III)
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