Birds are underrated and underestimated. Any bird sitting quietly with its wings folded is hiding over half of its body and power.
See what I mean?
(He’s a bald eagle and just FYI, I’m 6 foot tall in those boots.) 😉
I had a flying lesson with bird handler Carly, at Herrings Green Activity Centre a few weeks ago flying owls, eagles and a reluctant but gorgeous buzzard called Trinity.
I’m generally very good with my wildlife general knowledge- I spent many years wanting to present nature documentaries (and still do) but learned so much that had never occurred to me. This experience and the week I just spent in Iceland have reminded me of how little respect we have for the natural world- especially in England where I live, but that’s a rant for a post not too far in the future. Now, I want to show you what I got up to and introduce you to some new friends…
Owls are great.
This is an eagle owl. They really aren’t as heavy as they look even though they’re huge. While birds like falcons are mostly muscle, owls are mostly fluff. They have a blind spot right between their eyes so if you put your hand near that spot, they will nibble at you to try and work out what you are and if you’re holding something edible. This is exactly what sharks do, except you generally don’t lose a limb to an owl…
That isn’t to say they aren’t badass and that the homicidal tendencies aren’t there. Most bird handlers I have ever spoken to tell me that the worst injuries they have ever had have come from little owls.
While they have been pets before- Florence Nightingale had a pet little owl she brought home from Greece (called Athena)- it isn’t recommended. Little owls are well known for being scrappy, feisty, adorable little grumps.
Above is a little owl. Below is a tawny owl- they’re the ones that sound like they’re going “twit-twooo”- which is usually two owls talking to each other. One saying ‘twit’ and the other replying. The pale ones that scream the place down are barn owls.
And this is a Scops Owl- there are many varieties and this one isn’t native to the UK. They’re masters of disguise and pretend to be tree branches, which is ridiculously cute. Last time I had a flying lesson, a plane flew overhead and my owl went into what the handler described it as his ‘vacuum-packing routine’. He narrowed his eyes so they were hardly orange, flattened all his feathers down and went very still until the plane had gone.
I didn’t do much flying with the owls but got to hold lots more. Most were sleepy as they tend to hunt around dawn and dusk (not in the dead of night as most films portray). The hawks and eagles were wide awake and happy to flap around though…..
This is Sam, the Bateleur eagle. Isn’t he GORGEOUS!!?
His beak is normally yellow but when he gets attention it goes orange. He was very friendly and strokable (but only on the back of his neck where other eagles would groom him.. and though he’s big and strong he needed to be carried out of his pen with his head covered….. because he’s scared of the gate. Poor Sam… 😛 😀
In the wild, he’d eat snakes, so when he’s eating or about to, he fluffs up his head feathers and spreads his wings so that a hypothetical defensive snake would stand less chance of striking something vital.
This is a Chilean blue eagle. I didn’t get to hold this one but doesn’t he just look like part of a griffin carved of stone??
And this is a hybrid. Look at those feathers- I got to hold this one though we didn’t fly. (I had a great piece of paper recording all their names but of course I tidied it up… now where is it?!)
I got whacked in the face by a golden eagle…
Those wings are powerful and being hit with the top part is like being hit with the edge of a hand, the way they teach in martial arts. And they are HEAVY. Solid muscle under all those feathers.
Eagle: Oh go on, lift me higher- I won’t hit, I promise!
Me: I don’t believe you…
You find golden eagles in the Scottish Highlands. You find buzzards just about everywhere in the UK. Scots often refer to buzzards as “tourist eagles” as so many tourists see this big soaring predatory bird and assume it’s the famous golden eagle. Here’s a size comparison- the buzzard is on the left… 😉
It’s easy to freak out at the huge ripping beak but it’s actually the talons that are the seriously formidable bit. Golden eagles can exert 400lb of pressure at the tips of their talons; they can crush a skull. Easily.
That also goes for some of the owls as well as the falcons, hawks and eagles; the beak is comparatively weak (though still able to injure) while the claws are made for gripping, squeezing and not letting go.
I was introduced to one bird in the centre that cannot be flown: a female eagle owl. I love animals of all kinds but there have been two times in my life in which I have been truly afraid of the creature I’m looking at: one was a reticulated python in an aquarium in Madrid. It was almost fully grown, in S-bend ‘strike-mode’ and following me with its head as I moved around the area. I got the hell out.
The other was this owl. The handler explained that she had been rescued from a bad background and while most of the time behaviours can be relearned, she was simply too dangerous to be rehabilitated or flown. One of the last times she had been flown, a fox ran alongside the arena and out of the bird and mammal, only one had come back alive. Many people don’t see owls as being dangerous to anything larger than a mouse, but she was physically capable of killing a person. The only thing to do was give her the best life possible with people who care- and no I didn’t get a picture, I let her have the peace and quiet.
I walked on, past red kites, storks (there are VERY few stork flying displays in the world- this may be the only one in the UK!) a hornbill proudly parading a rock in his bill (they use them in mating displays) and there were some birds with the cutesy factor too- this is an American kestrel who seeme quite interested as I went walking around. Fluffy fluffy fluffy…
And THIS is Spoon, the spoonbill. He follows you around, was very very friendly and liked the attention he was getting! I hadn’t seen a spoonbill before- except on nature documentaries- and he was such a character.
One of my favourite birds is the vulture. I once had a very bizarre and moving experience involving a California park, a broken heart and 40 vultures where they had no reason to be- so I’ve grown to love vultures ever since. Carly also loved vultures so we went into the enclosure to see if we could tempt this turkey vulture with some yummy dead chicks. He was also tempted by Carly’s shoelaces so we had a mini game of tug-of-war.
In the US, vultures are usually called buzzards… while buzzards are often called hawks. It’s a confusing nightmare and explains why my usually good ID skills were corrected a lot when I last went to California!
Now, speaking of America… the first bird I’m holding (at the top) is Lincoln. He’s a bald eagle and he’s heavy!!! Even my gym-strengthened arms could only hold him for a second before my shoulder drooped. Holding him up is a team effort!
Eagle high-five! 😛
They look so majestic and powerful… but when bald eagles feature in films or there’s an awe-inspiring mountain scene that needs an eagle cry, they bring in voice actors: red tailed hawks.
Red tailed hawks sound like this.
Bald eagles sound like this. (Basically an indignant seagull.)
Me: Hey Lincoln, you’re the squeakmeister.
I finally head to head home (after running back along the display to farewell every single bird) but other than my photos and feathers (that fell naturally while we were there), I got one ridiculous little souvenir from when Lincoln mis-stepped. It’s healed now but that would have been a scar to talk about. 😛
I’m about to leave again- this time for two more countries I’d never seen before (I’m doing well this month!) but I’ll be back in a few days… with new videos, new plans and exciting stories. Speak to you soon but in the meantime, I’ll try to update my instagram with what I’m up to.
Take care, adventurers…