Keeping up with the Kestrels: Yorkshire birds replace the Kardashians

Keeping up with the Kestrels: Forget the Kardashians… the life and death dramas starring these Yorkshire birds are proving a hit on one wildlife fan’s YouTube channel

  • Robert Fuller uses cameras around his Thixendale Farm to capture the kestrels
  • YouTube channel has documented everything from fights to birth of new chicks
  • Subscription figures have soared as fans can’t get enough of Mr and Mrs Kes 

The 24/7 reality TV project is the work of wildlife artist and photographer Robert E. Fuller — using cameras hidden around his farm and in five nest boxes

Keeping Up With The Kardashians is nearing the end of its 20-season run, and the fictional residents of TV’s Walford and Weatherfield remain locked in their familiar cycles of gloom.

Meanwhile, nestled in a valley in the picturesque Yorkshire Wolds, a very different family drama has viewers gripped. 

Like all good soap operas and reality TV, it has it all: romance, peril, triumph over the odds.

The stars are a fiery matriarch who will fight for her brood, and a devoted, but rather hapless, patriarch doing his bit to keep his family together.

Meet Mr and Mrs Kes, and their six hungry kestrel chicks, celebrity residents of Fotherdale Farm in Thixendale. 

This feathery clan draws in tens of thousands of viewers a day, via a camera in their home — a nest box crafted from a sycamore stump, three metres up on a wooden platform.

The 24/7 reality TV project is the work of wildlife artist and photographer Robert E. Fuller — using cameras hidden around his farm and in five nest boxes. 

In the past year, subscribers to his YouTube channel have soared from 35,000 to 205,000, with the current Kes family his biggest hit.

‘I’m delighted,’ says Robert, who began his project in 2006. ‘The kestrels have so much fight and vigour, they’re so determined to raise their brood!’ 

You can find out all about the kestrels at robertefuller.com. 

But in the meantime, put your feet up and catch up on their day-to-day lives in… NestEnders.

 Like most reality TV, there was a prequel

All good dramas have a back story. It turns out Mr and Mrs Kes aren’t Fotherdale’s first kestrels.

The previous occupants were ‘a problem family’ — the sorts beloved of a soap opera storyline.

Kestrels are normally faithful birds, choosing a lifelong mate and briefly separating each winter before reuniting to raise a family every year.

Four years ago, says Robert, this incumbent kestrel (above) was a bit of a scoundrel when it set up home with a mistress while his wife was sitting ont he nest

But four years ago, says Robert, the incumbent kestrel was a bit of a scoundrel: he set up home with a mistress while his wife was sitting on the nest. 

For two years he raised parallel families — and fierce fights broke out between the female birds.

The mistress even had a go at her rival’s fledgling babies. In 2018 the poor wronged wife died in such a fight, leaving three chicks to feed.

Robert felt compelled to intervene and hand-reared the chicks.

As for the rotter and his mistress? They haven’t been seen since 2019.

 But this looks like love at first sight

Mr Kes II is first to arrive in late autumn 2019, followed by the female bird who will become his mate.

Although kestrels mature when they are a year old, many do not manage to secure a mate and breeding territory until their second year, and this pair looked to be getting ready for their very first family.

After a winter courtship, the newly weds select a nest box crafted from an ash stump as their first home together.

After a winter courtship, the newly weds select a nest box crafted from an ash stump as their first home together

 Let’s find a family home

In September 2020, Robert spots the birds scoping out the sycamore nest box, hopefully with a view to the coming breeding season.

Unlike some birds, kestrels don’t build nests, preferring instead to find a hollow in a tree — or a cosy nest box — in which to ‘scrape’ a shallow depression into which she can lay her eggs.

As he gets broody, Mr Kes woos his female with gifts of mice — to prove what an excellent father and provider he would be.

His offerings obviously pay off, and before Robert knows it, they’re happily ensconced and in April they set up their new home.

 It’s the most egg-citing day of their lives

The first of six eggs arrives on Easter Monday, April 5 and Mrs Kes skilfully pops out another five (kestrels lay roughly every 48 hours) over the next 11 days.

Husband and wife share the incubation duties, intermittently at first, and only when the fourth egg arrives does Mrs Kes take over full time.

And there she (mostly) stays for the following 27-29 days.

The first of six eggs arrives on Easter Monday, April 5 and Mrs Kes skilfully pops out another five (kestrels lay roughly every 48 hours) over the next 11 days

One recent episode in the Mr and Mrs Kes saga had half a million views on YouTube in a week. 

As one reviewer put it: ‘Never mind Emmerdale, it’s Thixendale that has the best love stories and fights.’

 Well done, dear. Fancy a lizard?

Mrs Kes may rule the roost, but Mr Kes knows the way to his amore’s heart — a juicy lizard.

Kestrels feed almost exclusively on small rodents — particularly voles — but, says Robert, will also take wood mice and shrews, small birds, insects and earthworms.

A lizard is a rare find in the Yorkshire Wolds, but when the missus has just laid your first egg, it’s the kestrel equivalent to a ‘push present’. 

Kestrels feed almost exclusively on small rodents — particularly voles — but, says Robert, will also take wood mice and shrews, small birds, insects and earthworms

He delivers the gift within an hour of her laying the first egg.

His awesome eyesight means he can spot prey from 50m away, which is lucky, as a hungry bird (especially Mrs Kes!) can scoff four to eight voles a day.

 Invaders Part 1: A real t-wit  

During the lockdowns of the past year, live feeds into the animal kingdom have soared in popularity, thanks in part to the hugely popular BBC2 series Springwatch, which returns next week.

But as any viewer will know, it’s not all fluffy chicks and cuteness in the animal kingdom…

Mr and Mrs Kes just want a bit of peace and quiet to concentrate on their family, but it’s not to be.

A beastly barn owl, who also fancies the nest site for his own brood, invades and tries to evict the kestrels — but Mrs Kes quickly sees it off in a spectacular scrap.

A beastly barn owl, who also fancies the nest site for his own brood, invades and tries to evict the kestrels — but Mrs Kes quickly sees it off in a spectacular scrap

Hours later a jackdaw arrives and tries to do the same thing, only to be sent on his way by Mr Kes.

But like a troublesome customer in a TV pub soap, he won’t leave them alone — even returning with a few of his mates later.

 Invaders Part 2: It’s a knockout!

Just when it seems our love birds have got a bit of peace, disaster!

One morning, Robert arrives at the nest site only to find Mrs Kes pinning down one of those pesky jackdaws.

A power cut means Robert’s cameras haven’t recorded the fight, but dramatic footage of the aftermath shows the two birds next to each other, dazed and panting.

Mrs Kes has blood on her face, the jackdaw has a pale feather stuck into its beak.

It could have been a fight to the bitter end.

Eventually the exhausted birds summon up the energy to move and there is a scramble as supertough Mrs Kes kicks the interloper out.

Just when it seems our love birds have got a bit of peace, disaster! Robert arrives at the nest site only to find Mrs Kes pinning down one of those pesky jackdaws

 A little help from the hand of Rob

Oh no, the six eggs have been scattered out of the ‘scrape’ during the melee. 

Mrs Kes is so distressed she leaves her eggs, which need her warmth to incubate, unattended for much longer than she should.

Robert decides to intervene, seizing a moment when both birds are away from the nest to group all the eggs (three of which feel alarmingly cold to him) back in the hollow of the scrape so she will be able to cover them all… if she returns.

Finally, Mrs Kes returns and the nest is free from drama until the first chick, with a little help from mum, hatches on May 10, followed three hours later by the second.

But that night, as the four remaining eggs continue to incubate, a new interloper arrives with designs on the nest. 

This time it’s a female barn owl. The victor? Mrs Kes, of course. 

She is a formidable mother and fends off the attack, literally shoving it out of the nest.

 Lunch is on you, quite literally 

He had one job! Bringing home dinner is an important task for Dad when there are hungry beaks to feed.

Kestrel chicks need to have their food torn up for them —which seems beyond Mr Kes.

In one comical moment after the first two chicks break out of their shells, he arrives home with a tasty wood mouse, but no Mrs Kes to sort out dinner.

In one comical moment after the first two chicks break out of their shells, he arrives home with a tasty wood mouse, but no Mrs Kes to sort out dinner

The camera captures his bemusement as he looks around the nest, goes back outside then returns, before deciding any food is better than none — and drops the rather large lunch on top of his cheeping offspring.

Thankfully Mrs Kes soon returns and carefully shreds the mouse into tiny bite-sized pieces.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=jdRnDt7wnbc%3Frel%3D0%26showinfo%3D1

Click away, soon it’s chicks away 

The busy, multi-tasking kestrel mum barely has a moment to herself. 

Within hours, her third egg has hatched and by the end of the week, there are six hungry mouths to feed, ensuring both Mr and Mrs Kes will have their claws full for a while.

It won’t be long, though, before the chicks fly the nest. 

By the time the chicks are four weeks old they will be testing their wings and by the end of July they will be ready to leave home for good

By the time they are four weeks old they will be testing their wings and by the end of July they will be ready to leave home for good…

Until next year, when who knows, one or more of the chicks could return to Thixendale for the next season of NestEnders.

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