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The life and times of james Hart: his family, his music, life in Luton and his occasional escapes onto the internet.

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Wednesday, 26 October 2011

A morning at the Birds Of Prey Centre at Shuttleworth

Up to now, the concept of 'Groupon' has somewhat passed me by - mainly because I don't have a lot of time or money to spend on such activities; it's a very interesting - and successful - business proposition, though, since it increases customers (repeat ones, hopefully!) by reducing prices.

Beth saw a special offer earlier in the year that intrigued her - and she (quite rightly!) thought I might be interested: a morning at the Birds Of Prey Centre near Biggleswade, learning about falconry and 'flying' some of the birds.

A small collection of falconsThe session started at 10am, with a demonstration of owl flying, although we arrived slightly early, so we could have a browse round the avaries and bird perches. One of the misapprehensions about displays of falconry is that it's cruel that the birds sit all day tethered to their perches - in fact, they are (and this is true!) incredibly lazy, and would otherwise just be sitting in trees all day, only moving to hunt and catch their prey. In the wild they find a clifftop or another post to sit on and do.. nothing!

The falconers have a strict regimen of exercise for the birds - even down to the moulting and measurement of weight, and there are 'summer' birds and 'winter' birds, appropriate for the season of hunting or displays.

However, the owls that were brought into the arena for some flying - we took turns to wear leather gauntlets for this! - didn't really feel like playing. Birds of prey, as well being lazy are also rather stupid - even owls! As a consequence, if they're not hungry, they'll just sit there. And that is what they did.

More gregarious are the Harris Hawks - Aidan (our instructor - a friendly, professional and rather tall man) trained Galifianakis, who was a young hawk; Nathan was twelve years old and more experienced. We had intended to do a demonstration 'hawk walk' where the hawks and the humans work in partnership to rouse the prey from the undergrowth and tree cover so the hawks swoop down and chase them. In fact, although Galifianakis (last year's brood was named after actors - they also have celebrity chefs, too!) behaved well, Nathan decided that we were incompetent, so flew off to the trees by the lake to find his own prey. Beth managed to hold him while he was still co-operating, though, and Galifianakis flew to each of us in turn, when we could persuade him from a tree (they get very nervous in open spaces... see - I told you they were a bit thick!)

Beth with Nathan the Harris Hawk
Beth with Nathan the Harris Hawk

Consequently, we were left waiting while Aidan looked for Nathan - the hawks have bells on their tails, because they (rather unusually!) waggle their tails whenever they land, which makes them easier to find! That didn't help Aidan, though - he had to call his boss, who said that if Nathan goes on a hunt and misses his prey he tends to go for a bath... that's where he was found!

It was clearly a lighthearted occasion, though - when Aidan emerged with a damp bird, we all saw the funny side; fortunately it was a sunny, warm morning, so it was actually very pleasant standing in the enormous field and enjoying the countryside.

To make it up to us for the rather unco-operative birds, Aidan gave us a treat - an opportunity to hold a juvenile - hence the dark plumage - bald eagle, called McCoy. This is the most mild-mannered eagles he'd ever known; the other bald eagle there was extremely fussy and would only be held by women, since he thought men were a threat... given they have no sense of smell, I have no idea how they can tell!

Here, then, is me with eight pounds of (fish-based, mainly) killer:

We were then invited to the bird display, where owls, falcons and even a stork showed their flying abilities, nearly knocking some of the spectators off their seats as they swooped overhead!

After the display we went to the wooded area, where the owl - who had been in the display - behaved much better, flying to our hands with almost no prompting. We were invited for coffee and cake - where we had the opportunity to ask questions about the birds; they supplied the hawks, for example, that cleared Trafalgar Square of pigeons a few years ago, making it a much more pleasant place to be a tourist!

And that was the end of the event - one that I would certainly recommend, and we'll definitely be bringing the children to enjoy a flying display! There are more photos in the gallery: www.mus-ic.co.uk/gallery/birdsofpreyoct2011.

In case you're wondering what the appeal of falconry is, here's a rather impressive bit of video that shows (in typically overdramatic style) how fast they can go:

Here's an Audioboo.fm recording I made near the hawks and owls - all the noise they're making is social - they like to squawk to each other!

Posted by james at October 26, 2011 8:22 PM

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