Saturday, 1 December 2018

Beautiful Birds of Prey

Today was a meeting of our local Ileostomy Association group near Ottery St. Mary in Devon, and our guest speaker was a man from the North Somerset Bird of Prey Centre, based near Bristol. Because this was an indoor meeting, he just brought four birds and they were not allowed to fly around, but he was able to explain a lot about them, and at the end to give any volunteers the opportunity to handle them themselves.

It was a fascinating talk, and he was very amusing with it. The first bird he showed was a beautiful tiny owl – a southern white-faced owl named Luna, who was four years old, and bred in Lincolnshire.

01 Southern White-Faced Owl

This owl has been called “The Japanese Transformer Owl” after a Youtube video:

This shows that the owl has the amazing ability to fluff itself up to several times its normal size, and also to shrink right down, according to different sized threats.

He told us that this owl’s prey is just as remarkable – poisonous snakes, scorpions and huge spiders. It is a “movement hunter” – it will ignore anything that isn’t moving, but from quite a distance it can detect the movement of a single spider leg and pounce.

The “ears” are nothing to do with hearing, but are tufts of feathers which serve as camouflage, breaking up the owl’s outline.

He was very amusing about this somewhat diminutive owl, describing how he decided to have some fun after discovering one of the Centre’s captive ones attacking a large bone left over from somebody’s Sunday joint. He downloaded a Wikipedia page and doctored it to back up his claim that this owl had downed an elephant and eaten it. He presented this story to a group of students at his local university and some of them actually believed it, and were asking questions, such as, “How did the owl manage to bring the elephant down?” He said that the owl hid himself in the undergrowth, and as the elephant walked past, he stuck out his foot and the elephant tripped over it. When asked how the tiny bird had managed to penetrate the thick hide of the elephant, he said it had crawled up inside its trunk and eaten it from the inside out. He ended this story by telling us that he was extremely worried about the future. “In a few years’ time, these students will probably be running the country. I hope I’m out of here by then!”

He taught us that contrary to popular belief, 65 percent of the world’s owls are daytime hunters – we always think of them as “night owls” and don’t expect to see or hear them during the day. He said that you can tell what sort of hunter they are by their eye colour:

  • Orange eyes: crepuscular (dawn or dusk) hunters
  • Yellow eyes: diurnal (daytime) hunters
  • Dark brown eyes: nocturnal (night-time) hunters

He told us that the “wise old owl” is a total myth. Living in close proximity with owls over many years, he could testify that they are as thick as two short planks!! Analysing their brains, scientists have determined that the greatest percentage of brain matter is given over to vision, closely followed by hearing, and the rest, a tiny proportion, to intellectual capacity. The archetypal bird brain.

Next, he introduced us to Cerberus, a British tawny owl – our most familiar native owl.

02 Tawny Owl

Cerberus, in Greek Mythology, was the multi-headed hound who guarded the gates of Hades, and he said that his namesake had the appetite of several hounds so his name was appropriate! He told us that tawnies are quite vocal and often talk to each other when hunting, and raised a laugh by suggesting that the “t’wit” of the female and the “t’woo” of the male were actually the male “wooing” the female and the female insulting him by calling back “twit, twit”!!

They can be very aggressive and will attack you if you go near their nest. People have lifted the lid of a nesting box, thinking it was empty of adults, only to have an eye pecked out. He tends to wear a motorcycle crash helmet with a visor when doing this, and once, the owl attacked him and its talons left huge gouges on the surface of the helmet and someone thought he had come off his bike and his head had skidded along the road.

They are also territorial, and object to other owl species invading their hunting grounds, and will kill a barn owl for territory. They live about 13-14 years in the wild, and the official record age in captivity was 19 years, but at the Centre, just after this was published, they had one which was 24 years and 5 months old!

The prey of the tawny can range from worms, three-quarter sized rabbits, squirrels and fish. They have dark brown eyes, showing that they are nocturnal. Cerberus weighs in at about 1 1/4 pounds.

He then opened the largest cage and brought out an absolute monster of an owl – Hercules, a five-year-old European Eagle Owl weighing 5 lb 2 oz.

03 European Eagle Owl 1

His mother, Harriet, used to kill dog foxes for a pastime. Their usual prey is anything from worms, up to rabbits and foxes.

They pair for life. Our national bird preservation society stated that this was not a native bird to the UK and had been introduced, and because they could kill cats and dogs, said they should be shot on sight. However, our speaker said he used to work for them and said that he knew that this statement was incorrect, and knew for a fact that they really are a native of our islands, and should be protected. A breeding pair was found in a quarry in Yorkshire and the society was all for destroying them but then the Ministry of Defence stepped in and set up a training camp there, which of course was out of bounds to anyone not in the army, so the owls got military protection! The society did kill one female eagle owl on one occasion, and its mate mourned and cried inconsolably for months afterwards. There are apparently 50-60 wild eagle owls in this country and about as many in captivity. A truly magnificent bird.

He told us that the “ears” are similar to those of the southern white-faced owl, and are used to show the bird’s expression: if they are up, the owl is alert; if lying down flat against the head, he “doesn’t give a hoot,” and if they are sticking out sideways, he is in hunting mode.

Here is Hercules with his wings spread as in flight.

04 European Eagle Owl 2 - Flight

Hercules was bred in captivity and is very tame, and trusts his handler to the extent that he can hold the bird without a glove, which is normally considered extremely risky; the large glove used to hold this bird is triple-thickness leather! Once, our speaker had his hand seriously injured by the talons of an eagle owl which has 350 kg pressure in each foot. It pierced right through the soft tissue of his hand and wouldn’t let go, and the bird had to be gradually coaxed to relax sufficiently for the talons to be extracted from his hand. He went to hospital and had it X-rayed and fortunately there were no broken bones; it was just soft tissue damage but of course there was a huge risk of infection. He was fortunate not to lose his hand. The owl will apply pressure if it feels insecure and likely to lose its balance (hence the requirement to be an experienced handler!) or if it is grasping its prey. (Our speaker said the doctor had told him he needed a psychiatrist rather than a physician!)

Hercules is a very affectionate bird and has a strong relationship with our speaker, and loves a cuddle!

05 European Eagle Owl 3 - Cuddle

The final bird he introduced us to was Flash, a male Harris hawk, named after Flash Harry! The Harris hawk is a native of the Americas, and is the most popular falconry bird in the UK.

06 Harris Hawk

In contrast with his owl cousins, the Harris hawk’s brain is 400 times the size! This is a very intelligent bird.

These birds are highly social and hunt in packs. Each pack is controlled by an alpha female and everybody has to do what she says, or she will eat them. Alpha females have been known to eat both their beta husbands and their offspring! Normally, though, their pray is rabbits, rats, mice, pheasants and the like.

They live in semi-desert regions with only sparse cactus plants growing. Because this means there aren’t that many perching places from which to survey their surroundings, they often stand on each other’s backs on top of a tall cactus, sometimes several birds high, known as the totem pole effect.

Harris hawks can live about 13 years in the wild, and up to 25 years in captivity.

On the subject of their breeding habits, beta females have a choice. They can either forego the privilege of breeding in order to stay in the pack and enjoy the benefits of shared hunting and feeding, and security, or if they can’t resist the urge to breed, to leave. If they don’t agree, the alpha female will eat them. It’s a no-brainer really. As for the males, when they reach sexual maturity they still aren’t old enough or good enough at hunting to be useful in the pack, so are reduced to scratching around on the ground trying to scare out prey from any undergrowth, and only the beta males are allowed to breed with the alpha female. They tend to leave the pack and set up bachelor packs. Any exiled females will approach a bachelor pack and select the best prospect for a husband and start to flirt with him. If he is agreeable, they will form a pair, and then a new pack, with the female assuming the lead as before.

Two young ladies sitting at the staff table beside me were nodding in agreement throughout this description and saying “what a good idea” which amused me greatly! Feminists… Lol!

At the end of his talk, he invited volunteers to come forward for the opportunity to handle the birds themselves. Here is Mark being instructed on how to hold Flash on the glove.

07 Mark Taking the Harris Hawk

08 Mark with the Harris Hawk

This very serious little boy was given a small sized glove so that he could hold Luna, the smallest and lightest of the four birds.

09 Little Boy with the Southern White-Faced Owl

Finally, Chris with Hercules. He certainly wasn’t going to risk handling him without a glove!

10 Chris with the European Eagle Owl

It was such an interesting and fun talk and we all learnt such a lot and were thoroughly entertained.

The rest of the day was taken up with the usual activities at our meetings, beginning with a lovely buffet lunch spread at which I ate far too much – you take a little of this and a little of that, and before you know it, your plate is overflowing! After lunch was the talk, and then the committee business, and then we went through the answers to the quiz. Each time, copies of a printed sheet are left on the tables and you can fill in the answers. This time the theme was Christmas – anagrams of carols, names of pantomime characters minus vowels and spaces, general knowledge questions about historical Christmases etc. etc. I was among a few who got 22 out of the 25 questions correct, and only one lady got 23, so she won the chocolate bar and a round of applause!

There was the usual raffle, and a small sale table (I bought a couple of second hand books) and the table of bring-and-share spare stoma products – unwanted samples, surplus supplies etc. There’s usually something worth picking up there. This time I didn’t have anything to put on the table. This year there was only one manufacturing company rep, which was unusual, but I had quite an interesting chat with her.

There was a Christmas cake baking competition but unfortunately there were only two entries, and the traditional white-iced fruit cake won the prize. Both cakes were cut and shared over tea at the end, and the traditional one was absolutely delicious and worthy of the prize. Over tea I chatted with the stoma nurse who had come from Exeter – mostly about our shared love of cats! – and an exchange of photos of our beloved kitties!

Altogether a really lovely day out, and the opportunity to meet old friends and meet new people too. We have 3 or 4 meetings a year and it’s well worth the minimal annual subscription which also covers a quarterly magazine and local newsletter.

A day for Kermit, my stoma, to meet up with his little friends!


  1. Thank you so much for the visit to mine and your lovely comments - I do appreciate it especially as you aren't 'desking' this week and have so much on. I'm really glad I've popped over as I just love birds of prey - what a fantastic day you had, and what an informative blog post - both hubby and myself have really enjoyed reading it and meeting the birds! Over many years we have been regularly visiting the Hawk Conservancy at Weyhill near Andover - it you haven't been I can highly recommend it, it has to be one of my favourite places for a day out.
    Anyway I actually wanted to let you know the hydrangea die I use is a Susan's Garden one (Sizzix I think) and it's the old style hydrangea die that is made over half a polystyrene ball covered in paper. I think it's discontinued and has been replaced by the newer style which is designed to be flatter, and the die includes a shape that forms the base so it will fit better in an envelope. I don't see why the new style can't be made into a more domed one though.
    As I've been missing from the desks a fair bit I have also just caught up on your beautiful flowers in your previous post - wow, they are stunners - although my heart is always caught by neutrals and browns first, I just found the bluey green ones jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I am so looking forward to seeing your project.
    I hope you get your computer problems sorted, they can be so frustrating can't they!
    Diana x

  2. Wow, Hercules took my breath away! What a magnificent animal! Sounds like a lovely day out - and also very educational.


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