Owls About That!

A Falconer’s Apprentice

On and off, for about a year, I worked as a volunteer for a falconry centre. My first outing was somewhat memorable.

The birds lived a two hour drive south. The show was to be a two day event, about an hour’s drive north. Our logic told us that we should take a couple of sleeping bags and camp out to save ourselves getting home late and up early. When we asked the event hosts, they exchanged worried looks and slowly nodded. We didn’t understand why the reluctance; not until we went for an evening stroll after being locked in for the night and discovered we were sleeping in a cemetery.

This was my first time around birds of prey where I actually had to do more than look at them and think, “How cool!”

Here is the list of birds we turned up with:
2 x Harris’ Hawks
1 x Indian Tawny Eagle
1 x African Fish Eagle
1 x Barn Owl
1 x White Faced Scops owl

Here is the list according to me at the time:
2 x wotsits
1 x Eagle
1 x Other Eagle
1 x Barn Owl
1 x stumpy owl

I have been known to tell people Harris Hawks are Golden Eagles. I once managed to convince someone a Burrowing Owl was actually the cause of Jürgen Klinsmann’s injuries whilst at Tottenham Hotspur, as White Hart Lane was home to at least two families of the species.

I won’t mention the time when an elderly man asked where we got the birds from and I told him, “Poached them fresh this morning.” (Yes, luckily he did have a sense of humour!)

Some of the birds owned by this centre had been raised from chicks; some hand-reared, others parent-reared. I enjoyed my time helping out when the work was offered. I started with the owls, even straying as far as handling the kestrel who had been lurking off to the side.

The kestrel had been one of the rescue birds. Kicked out of her nest as a baby (I know there’s a technical word but I don’t care what that word is), she’d been picked up by a practising falconer. I should possibly add that this chap was a professional, however this kestrel was very soon neglected. It happens to be illegal for a wild bird to be flown on a public display, and so this little thing was kept tethered in the background with little to no access to water, just a chick or two being thrown her way on occasion.

Water, by the way, is present for bathing reasons when it comes to birds of prey. Much of their liquid comes from their food, but sometimes they do like to have a splash-about.

The chap who took this kestrel in eventually decided that obviously the bird would be useless to him, her feathers weren’t growing the way they should, and that the kindest thing would be to break her neck. That’s when the falconer I worked with stepped in.

With a little TLC, this kestrel blossomed, her feathers came through perfectly, and every day she flew to the lure, a few brilliant passes until she got tired. She was, after a year, felled by a genetic heart condition, potentially the reason she was pushed out of the nest at the start.

I grew accustomed to having a Scops on my arm. Eventually that weekend I graduated up the scale to the Barn Owl. (I know – what a daredevil!)

I find that I have bird limitations. After many experience days and a year and a half of doing these shows, I flat refused to handle an eagle. Hawks, fine. I’ve previously chased one around a school, and let me tell you this: if a hawk does a flapper in a building filled with people, it’s guaranteed to find every person in the building who has a fear of birds. This is a fact.

The 30th Disappointment

My parents had decided to get me an owl for my birthday. It was going to be a Barn Owl. That bit was pretty obvious, however they changed their mind. In the meantime, I jumped the gun out of fear. Did I really know all I needed to be able to care for one? What if it was a chick, not an adult? Was I likely to end up killing it?

I panicked like a lunatic, and when the day finally came, I nearly had a heart attack – the owl was a 14k thing on an 18k chain.

I didn’t mean to be ungrateful, but after 29 years of expressing an intense dislike for gold, it never occurred to me that nobody had listened.

Roll on a few weeks and my friend remembered my birthday. I had been blessed with a pair of barn owls. Apparently proven breeders, and one had been flown whereas the other would require a lot of attention. The catch: I would not be able to have them for a while. Until then, it was unlikely I’d ever get to see them, let alone handle them.

My mother is one of those scared of birds, but she thinks owls, at a distance, are beautiful creatures, especially Barn Owls. At the time, they were her favourite species. She asked me to take a picture when I saw the little guys, and I wanted to. My friend, however, is protective of the business and didn’t want me to. So there I have a couple of owls I can’t handle, can’t see, and can’t take a picture of in case someone somewhere saw that they were in a garage until their aviary had been completed, which was fair enough – if I had taken pictures, maybe I would have put them online, and as I was to find out later, there are many falconers who are pretty brutal.

Fair enough, I suppose, but in the meantime I had bought two of everything – not a cheap mission – and seemed unlikely to have a reason to even have one of anything. If they’re breeders and settled, it’s a bit nasty to move them. I’ve felt annoyed owl bites, they’re not pleasant!

I didn’t discuss it with my friend when I started my hunt for a chick. I’d seen a species which I had immediately fallen in love with, something which reminded me of an Ewok.

I spoke to the people who had introduced the species into the country who told me they had one left, and basically buy her now or you won’t get one. I asked them to let me know when they had another clutch. They never did.

In the meantime, I had put an advert onto a website which, entertainingly enough, the snobs of falconry enjoy chastising where possible.

Admittedly, the site has some adverts which would make your toes curl. Example:

“Any cheap owl wanted as Birthday present for 6 year old grandchild.” Not to be outdone, here was my personal favourite…:

“I will swap my female Harris hawk for iphone 4 or 3GS.”

Still, I chanced it, and put an ad out for a striped owl. Aware of the concerns facing some money-obsessed breeders, I mentioned that I had no intention of breeding the creature and would be happy with a male or female.

I was approached by a lovely chap halfway across the country. A hobbyist, he has been breeding owls for a significantly long time. We talked about my intentions – possible display bird, but definitely not an aviary bird – and by the end of it, I felt thoroughly grilled. It was a good grilling, mind; the actions of a man who genuinely cared about the well-being of the birds he sold on. And he did. Every so often, after bringing the little one over, we’d be on the phone to each other discussing what he’s just sold, where it’s gone, his concerns about the bird, how mine was getting along…

Mine came to me at just under three weeks old. The moment he entered the house, I knew he was the perfect companion for me. The first thing he did was jump straight onto the edge of the box he was in and turn his attention to Holland playing their first match of the Euro. By the next day, he had grown comfortable enough with his surroundings – which included one very bemused and frightened cat – to stroll around the house. This started with more of a flap than a stroll; he tried to fly into the dining room and landed in a wine rack. Quickly hopping onto my arm in a bid to escape, he then tried his luck making the one-meter flight from the back of the couch to the top of a display cabinet. Once again, he failed.

He struggled to get up the stairs, exploring every new area he could get. He entered the office, staring up with a childish awe at the places he knew he couldn’t yet reach before deciding the action was all downstairs, and he went back to alternating his time between snoozing on my shoulder and watching football.

The second day was also the day when my parents returned to find this ten inch ball of fluff laying down on the back of the couch, chewing his way through the stitching on one of his blankets.

My mum ran into the kitchen. My dad stood there in minor disbelief. The little guy struggled to his feet, stared at my father for a moment, and then looked back at the television, watching the ball flying around the screen. I took that moment to finally leave him long enough to visit the bathroom. I now understand the worry parents have over their naughty children.

I returned to see the little guy being valiantly guarded by my father while he … completely ignored his tall new friend, and my mother shrieked from the kitchen, “Get that thing out of my lounge now!”

The little fella took some coaxing, but he eventually got onto my arm and accepted being walked up the stairs. He wasn’t happy about it in the slightest, constantly craning his neck to watch the television before he discovered he could conduct his favourite activity in my bedroom.

Office Mascot

I was told to keep him warm. It was also suggested that I maintain constant human contact. Apparently his species is deemed untameable, and in many respects they’re right. Not just about his species, but about all owls.

I had learnt during the time I was volunteering that owls have tiny brains. It makes perfect sense, actually.

If you look at an owl’s face, the first thing that stands out is their eyes, be them big browns, oranges or yellows.

For those not in the know, you can tell the hunting habits of an owl by the colour of its eyes. Yellow, for example, shows a diurnal bird. Owls such as the Striped, or more obviously the Barn Owl, are nocturnal, and then you get those orange-eyed dawn/dusk hunters, the crepuscular owls such as the Eagle Owls.

These incredible eyes are fixed in their skull, hence the need to move their heads 135 degrees in either direction, and those eyes take up approximately two thirds of their skull. The feathery face you see in front of you when you look directly at the bird hides a deceptively small skull. Logically, there’s very little room for a brain after all the creature’s other essentials. This, of course, made him even more perfect for me as we shared a similar attention span. Everything was new and exciting, from a money spider climbing up a wall to the moving things on the TV screen.

I couldn’t ask my mother to look after him. That would have been similar to asking my dad to let a tarantula sit on his lap all day, and so I asked my boss if I could bring him in to work.

The little guy spent four hours sitting on my desk’s divider sleeping. He then decided to get on the desk and watch the computer screen while I typed. The moving letters excited him, apparently, until he felt the need for another nap. He climbed up my arm and lay down on my shoulder, heaved a little sigh and went to sleep.

He had no shortage of willing babysitters, and was even taken in to a somewhat important meeting to meet people. Quickly, he became a fully-fledged (pardon the pun!) member of staff. That is, of course, until he was temporarily bored of me and went to visit the neighbouring desk.

Unfortunately, the little flapper unwittingly introduced himself to the person in the office most scared of birds, and the screaming scared him. He leapt about in his shock until she calmed down and said it’s all fine (which turned out not to be the case) as he settled himself on her divider to watch his favourite office monkey.

I have to admit that I was unnerved by this other girl’s attention. She tried to ruffle him, and I went nuts. It wouldn’t have been pleasant for him or his feathers, and in addition to that, at the age he was, his bones would be very soft. He had to be handled carefully at that age; after all, he wouldn’t be able to have anklets put on him for at least another two and a half weeks.

I was aware that the moment he could fly properly he wouldn’t be welcome in the office, so until he could be safely transferred outside, other arrangements needed to be made.

A friend of mine took on babysitting duties temporarily, and she was more than happy to do that. At this point in his life with me he had taken to a selection of toy fish that had been given to him, as well as a toy rope.

Ever a greedy swine, he used to sit around pouncing on as many of these as he could, claiming a fish in the mouth, two in the talons, and as much of the rope as he could grab with the other foot before, again worn out, he would drop them all and watch the television after leaping onto my shoulder once again.

Obviously, we were inseparable.

Owls Are Not Pets

If you have an owl, or any bird of prey, you need to know people who can handle them if you happen to be away for even a night.

My father would feed my little mate when I’d take my monthly escape from the universe, but one day that option wasn’t available to me.

I had arranged everything: my travel to Plymouth, my room and board, even the film for my camera. Yes, I still use 35mm. I find the art is in the shot, not the software. A personal preference that’s consistently outdone by digital these days, but I like the set-up.

My parents announced they were going away the same weekend. No problem: they said bundle him up and ship him off to my friend. During the three weeks I’d had him, it seemed that my family had forgotten that the cat doesn’t run on batteries.

I asked my friend to look after him and the cat. I had keys cut and sorted his food out, and when my friend failed to check her phone or messages, it occurred to me that my weekend was not going to happen. My own fault, I should have called.

My friend had thought it was the week after when I would be needing the animal farm manned, but when I moped my way up to my boy’s aviary that morning, I had never been so happy to have had my plans fail.

There was silence, which was odd in itself. He always called out when he heard me in the morning. Immediately I thought the worst. I charged in like a girl on a mission, unlocked the door to what I knew as his bedroom, and before I set foot across the threshold, I was told in no uncertain owl-terms to get lost.

Looking down, this bird, now a foot tall and 50% adult in his plumage, was cheerfully standing in his bath playing with one of his toy fish.

I gave him a bit of privacy for an hour or so before returning with my utensils to give his lair a thorough scrubbing.

As far as it goes, if you don’t have someone who knows what they’re doing, holidays are something you can’t have. I was ironically being introduced as the volunteer, “the one who can go on holiday,” by someone with significantly more birds to my one, who had many people to look after and fly them. I don’t.

The little guy was on his creance at this point, training daily, however I couldn’t rely on my friend to remember, neither could I rely on my mother, slowly coming round to the idea of an owl as a grandchild, or father, who was happy to go in and feed him but not a lover of the idea of flying him, especially after his first experience of Owl Excitement (which involves talons).

This basically meant that I had a personal restriction of one night away every now and again, and I won’t deny it: I was on the phone constantly, checking that he was eating properly and had plenty of water and company. If I spent more than one night away, that meant more than one night where he couldn’t come out and be more than just a bird.

There were regular walks, trips to the pub – hey, people take their dogs so why not? – and outings in the park where I would let him fly around. He’d fly to me with no problem, but never for the food; always because he wanted to come back to me.

In the world of the Bird of Prey, it’s never the bird’s fault, no matter how intelligent or how basic. The bird is an equal, in some cases a tool. Owls, to the average falconer, are useless as falconers or austringers use the bird to hunt, and it’s notoriously difficult to teach an owl to be a hunter. It isn’t uncommon for a bird to “foot” its owner as a punishment. As stated, it isn’t the bird’s fault. It’s the fault of the owner and down to that owner to work out what they did to deserve that treatment. Luckily, I never had a problem with my lad in that way, however he would make his feelings known. For example, the first thing that would happen in the morning as far as he was concerned would be for me to go and see him, clean his aviary, get his food, and spend some time with him. On Christmas Eve, my parents went to the overflow freezer in the garden to take some food out. They didn’t call up to him. Less than 20 minutes later, I went out to do my usual. What greeted me was an annoyed bird with huge talons on his massive feet flying to the back of my neck where he then proceeded to wrap my head in his wings and bite my ear as hard as he could manage. I could have put a new stud in that hole he created. Immediately after that, we were best friends again. It seems after his feelings are expressed, they’re just as easily forgotten.

A stereotypical menace – ‘stereotypical’ because every animal I’ve had was a menace – he would always manage to find his way into the tallest conifer he could find. After a few weeks of having to coax him out, because he was above his flying weight and would only emerge because he thought I was a better option to a tree, I finally took a chance and let him off the creance. Magic happened.

As though sensing my trust in him, he appeared to begin trusting me more than before.

In my area, I knew I was taking a chance with him. Vast wooded parkland was just the right habitat for him, and having an attention span so short, I had to make myself more interesting than pigeons, leaves, squirrels, arguments with the cat, and an impressive collection of all his most hated birds.

I soon had his attention by teaching him Hide & Seek. Not seeing me suddenly became the most interesting thing for him. He’d call for me and await my response. From my hiding places, I’d watch him, fascinated by the biology.

Apparently all birds have significantly more vertebrae in their neck than humans, which means all birds have the potential to move their necks in a similar way to owls, however my curiosity led to my researching this.

The uneducated summary is that, unlike other creatures, the owl’s carotid artery is located close to the spine. That, coupled with the vessels being protected by special air sacks in the vertebrae, provides the owl with the necessary protection it needs against cutting off its blood supply when it turns its head such a distance. Other birds have their eyes further to the sides of their heads giving them something owls don’t have: good peripheral vision. Pigeons see more frames per second, which is why we all think they’re stupid for not getting out of the way of a car as quickly as we think they should – they know they have time. Crows are said to be ‘almost’ as intelligent as the average ten year old following problem-solving experiments, whereas I argue parents give their children jigsaws and other toys to help educate them as well as send them to school; this being the case, crows don’t go to school or get to play with jigsaws, so this to me puts them as superior to the average ten year old. The Kestrel’s vision allows them to track mice by their constant urine trail, leading them to the mouse’s hole where they hover in the hope that something will emerge. The owl’s vision at long range is fantastic, however up close they see very little, hence the feathers around the beak which their parents brush food against, allowing the chick to know when food is near.

So an owl can turn its head a long way. Big deal. All I have to do in the morning is put a key in the front door and he immediately knows I’m home no matter how quiet I am, even with an entire house, three trees and one hundred metres of garden and stairs between us. Their hearing is exceptional. Much like a human’s, yet at certain frequencies, phenomenal.

An owl at relatively close range can not only hear the movement of smaller creatures around them, they can hear our heartbeats too. Stands to reason if you’re within a few feet of the creature. However, they also seem to have control of the feathers around their ears, which in some cases are asymmetrical – one higher than the other. They have the ability to manipulate those feathers to almost mute other sounds, allowing them to home in on their prey.

So there I’d be, hiding behind a tree to watch my little guy in action. I’d call, he’d come to find me. And he never failed once.

An End to a Friendship

This year, my own lack of understanding and an abundance of trust led to my losing the best animal friend a girl could have.

During my somewhat short partnership, which sadly is to be a learning curve, I offered my pal all the freedom he could want.

Only when in public was he on a leash; in my garden, it was all about him feeling he had his own territory. I’d give him my arm, he’d hop onto my shoulder and stay there until he was ready to fly when it was time to be fed. In the meantime, he’d pay attention to me. He’d bite my lip if I sang show tunes, comb my hair with his talons, and preen my hair far better than he’d preen himself. I had enough trust in him to be able to kiss his beak and, perhaps stupidly, let him tug my eyelashes.

On this particular day, when almost at the end of his feed, a soft thump shocked him when I was taking him back to his aviary. On this occasion, like many others, I had neglected to hold his jesses in safety position. He flew to a tree, complete with his mouse, and then into the park.

Sitting beneath the tree he was in, where he was hounded by crows, jackdaws and even woodpeckers, I felt useless. He wouldn’t need to come back with a full stomach, and he at that point had no intention of it.

Birds quietened down as they began to settle down to roost, and my lad became captivated by the two neighbourhood bats, alternating his gaze between them and me.

At some point I left him for just half an hour. That half an hour was all it took for me to lose track of him. He was no longer calling to me, and my hope rapidly faded.

I hoped that his instincts would kick in. Sadly, they never did, and when he turned up quarter of a mile away two weeks later, it became evident that he had been living on adrenaline purely in the hope of being offered food and safety with a human.

When my friend’s team found him that day, he hadn’t lost any of his apparently too-gentle nature, willing to be picked up and taken to the centre for treatment, food and recuperation. He lasted less than half an hour.

Owls have no homing instinct. He had been tree-hopping for two weeks, fuelled perhaps by his excitement over new things to see, perhaps by his concern over other birds. Always close, he never revealed his position until it was too late.

If there’s one thing to take away from my time with him, it’s the fact that I need to learn more, understand birds more thoroughly, and the next time around – because even my mother has become a bird-lover due to his loving and attentive nature – I won’t make the same mistakes. There’s not just one thing, though. There’s a friendship that was perhaps unconditional, a love that would have lasted for life, a scar on my wrist from the most perfect swoop, and the knowledge that I will never be able to do my hair as well as he did.

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