Date of visit: 25th July 2009
Where: The English School of Falconry, Old Warden Park, Nr Biggleswade, UK
More info: http://www.birdsofpreycentre.co.uk/
Spent a day up at the birds of prey centre near Biggleswade and during the day got to handle, feed and fly a variety of the birds there and learned a few things in the process.
Finding the bird of prey centre can be a bit tricky, its just next to a small airstrip in the middle of the countryside – you can follow signs to it from the A1M roundabouts near Peterborough. But I’ll bet you’ll still end up getting lost! Other than that the day was great, we had good weather and the staff were really friendly and helpful.
We turned up in the morning and had a quick look around the bird sanctuary featuring alot of birds that had been abandoned or couldn’t be re-introduced to the wild. What struck me the most was the sheer volume both in terms of species and the amount of work. Around 300 birds that were kept and cared for with most able birds were used in demonstrations and Hawking – hunting using hawks, most of the birds being endangered are also registered on the breeding programs.
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While most birds were kept in large cages/aviaries or on perches, throughout the day they were flown either by ourselves, in demonstrations or by the keepers. So the animals welfare was well looked after – since these birds generally wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild.
After a quick look round we went straight out and begun working with the birds, rather than simply get close to the birds and take photos etc… the emphasise was on helping to train the birds. So we begun with the Owls, what struck me most was their lack of weight given their size – also unlike the other birds you couldn’t hear them flying at all, trouble was they were quite happy to give themselves away by squawking – I know you think I mean ‘hoot’ but not many of the Owls actually do that.
We had the Owls fly off in to the trees or on perches and then held out bits of dead chickens in our gloved hand for them to fly towards. When the owls landed on your glove you really couldn’t feel them land. The biggest Owl we flew was the Bengal Eagle Owl one of the smallest Eagle Owls and at just over 1kg with a wingspan of around 1 metre even then we couldn’t feel land on our glove. Although after a while with your arm out stretched you begun to feel their weight when they decided to perch on your arm for a while.
Afterwards we brought out the Harris Hawks, which are the one of the only raptors that actively hunt in groups and are very gregarious. Generally its these birds that you would use to hunt with. However, this Harris Hawk spotted what looked like a green woodpecker and went after it, and that was that – our lumps of baby chicks didn’t seem tempting to him, so he had to go back when he finally had had enough.
We then went off to handle a few of the owls and get them used to perching on a glove, I had the pleasure of holding a very inquisitive American Barn Owl who seemed facsinated with everything happening around her and seemed quite happy to sit perched on my glove.
And why not visit a few more of the birds before lunch? Starting with some baby Barn Owls and because of their age and their feathers were yet to come through we could handle them and touch them – well I say touch, more like let them nibble at our fingers. The Owls head whilst it looks large is actually just a big bundle of fluff. We then met some bigger baby Owls – Turkmenistan Eagle Owls, these were big with wingspans already near over a metre again but because they were still juvenile we could get up close and watch them play. I have to say that with all Owls their beaks didn’t hurt too much when they nipped you, but get anywhere near their claws and they will shred you to pieces without any effort.
We then got to my favourites, the Eagles, whilst due to their size and our complete lack of experience we couldn’t work with the Golden and Bald Eagles, we did get to say hello to Levi, an adult Chilean Blue Eagle. Although not the biggest of Eagles their wingspans reach up to 2 metres and can weigh over 2kg. After a while you could really feel him on the end of your arm but because he had worked most of his life in demonstrations he certainly knew how to pose and didn’t misbehave or try to nip me with his razor sharp beak.
So it was lunchtime and handily demonstration time, so we sat and ate and watched the fantastic demonstrations take place showing the birds hunting, catching food and their impressive acrobatics abilities.
Afterwards we continued looking at more of the Owls, I really didn’t know there were so many species. We started with saying hello to one of the biggest European Eagle Owls, a Tawny Owl and then one of the smallest the White Faced Scops Owls.
Then it was time to move on to the Buzzards, Falcons and Hawks starting this time with a more well behaved Harris Hawk but who was still very nervous around people and being handled, so the object here was to just get him more familiar with being handled. Next we had a Lanner-Peregrine Falcon which is actually a Man-made bird combining the Lanner’s amazing agility with the Pergrines phenomal speed – Its the fastest animal on the planet with speeds of over 200mph! Apparently people have sky dived with a head start and the Peregrine will still catch up.
It was time for another demonstration, this time we learnt about Vultures and their incredible sense of smell – they can smell a corpse from miles away. Also how just how important these birds are to the environment, what was most amazing was their resilience to infection and disease. We then saw the larger Eagles fly and the Peregrine Falcons were brought out to show off their speed which after seeing it was astounding.
We thought it odd that there were a pair of Secretary birds at a bird of prey centre BUT you just need to watch them in action to understand why, a bird of prey generally kills with its feet and normally from pouncing or diving on to its prey. How the Secretary bird kills its main source of prey, the snake, is something that you all need to witness. It will run up to the snake and then begin kicking the snakes head (a rubber toy one in this case) until it kills the snake. To protect it from snake bites it has heavy scales on its feet and legs and all the blood vessels are no where near the surface of the leg to reduce the risk of poison – Further evidence to Darwins theory of evolution!
So now we begin to end the day with feeding the birds – starting with the Vultures! And the biggest pair at that. These were huge, I didn’t stand a chance, but I did attempt to feed them as they clawed my arms and dribbled chicken guts down me. These Ruppell Griffin Vultures weighed over 20lb/9Kg! with wingspans of well over 3 metres and body lengths of up to 1 metre and just try telling them no! During the feeding of these and other Vultures I couldn’t help but remember, as they clawed my arms, that in order to avoid infection to their legs, they urinate on themselves as an anti-septic. Nice!
Could we find a bigger bird to feed – sure! It was time to say hello to the Pelicans and feed them some fish. I always thought of pelicans as rather small. Think of the biggest Swan you’ve seen then stick on a mouth of the same size and a wingspan well over 3 metres, despite all the other birds this is the only one that made me nervous when feeding them!
To finish the day we flew a Ferruginous Buzzard, similar in weight and size to the Eagle Owls we flew earlier, with wingspans up to 1.5 metres and weighing upto 2kg/4.4lb’s. However unlike the grace of the Owls, these things really meant it when they landed on your glove with such brute force and such sharp claws. It was really quite shocking after handling and flying the Owls to feel how much force this Buzzard could hit you with.
The finale was to the fly Levi, the Chilean Blue Eagle, similar size to the Buzzard but a bit more graceful – however he had the habit of building nests at this time of the year so he had to be tethered to a long line to stop him flying off into the trees, killing the other birds and building a nest. Again he was much more noticeable than the Owls when striking but still nothing compared to the force of the Ferruginous Buzzard or the voraciousness of the Vultures.
So as you can see that was a very full packed day, well worth the money and you certainly get the value out of it as well as learn alot about the birds and help out with training them.