Thursday, 24 May 2012


Facing off with a hawk
Henry the Harris Hawk and me
Last weekend I had one of the most enjoyable and memorable days of my life.

It was a drizzly, grey sort of day on Saturday, but I set off for the Cotswolds in a spirit of barely suppressed excitement. This was the day I was to redeem my Christmas present from Mr A: a day's falconry experience at the Cotswold Falconry Centre.

When I was in my early 20's, a friend invited me to his wedding in North Lincolnshire somewhere. I don't remember much about the wedding, but what I do remember is that the following day, I went with friends to a local attraction that hosted a falconry centre, and watched the display. I was hooked from the first moment. I made my friends stay so that I could watch a second display later in the day, and then wrote to the falconer with all sorts of questions about what was involved in keeping and flying birds of prey. He kindly wrote me a letter in return, which I still have.

Flying hawk At that time I was at university, having a somewhat disorderly, irresponsible and unsettled life, with all sorts of plans for travelling and without the slightest intention of settling down to the sort of life that would allow me to look after any sort of animal, let alone one as sensitive and time-consuming as a bird. But I never forgot the thrill of that display and the unexpected passion that it aroused.

Move on about 20 years, and Mr A and I visited Ludlow, where we happened upon a sign in Ludlow Castle advertising a falconry display. I insisted that we stay and watch it, and the impact was hardly less than all those years ago - the birds were so beautiful, graceful, powerful and still almost wild. They were certainly not tame or domesticated; there was none of the mutual attraction of a cat or a dog with a human. It was a cold, business-like relationship based on making an easy living on food provided in exchange for flying about a bit. The birds were free to go if they wished, although it was clear that the falconer would have calculated carefully to ensure that they didn't.

Bald eagle approaching food feet first Mr A has since said that he hadn't ever seen me in such a state of excitement before. It must have made an impression, because that was at least five years ago, and I was absolutely amazed to receive the envelope on Christmas Day with a voucher for this falconry experience.

With Desmond the Great Tufted Owl So last weekend I headed off into the drizzle, and joined a group of five other people from 9.30 a.m. until 5.30 p.m. We were looked after by four of the staff, and were plunged straight in at the start when each of us was given a bird in turn (Henry the Harris Hawk and Desmond the Great Tufted Owl) and sent off to walk around a field with it. Then, in order to understand the variety of size and weight of falconry birds, we each were given a little American falcon, followed by a Gyr/Saker cross and then... a Golden Eagle. It was amazing - you could hardly feel the tiny falcon on the fist, but the eagle looked me straight in the eye, and was as heavy as a small child. A magnificent creature.

Golden eagle on my fist The centre is remarkably big, and has about 150 birds altogether for conservation, breeding, and flying in displays and at prey. They include eagles, vultures, buzzards, caracara from South America, a huge variety of owls, down to the slighter birds: sparrowhawks, kestrels and falcons. At this time of year many are raising chicks. There are several birds tethered in mews (sheltered areas) and weatherings (uncovered) - they are flown every day and brought inside at night, while others are permanently out in large enclosures. The breeding birds are not disturbed, but some of the non-breeding birds in the enclosures are brought out and flown, including a pair of caracaras in one of the displays I watched. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We were given some information about the 4000-year recorded history of falconry, species and types of birds, how they are cared for, the equipment used (the tether, the creance, hoods, jesses, lures) and some of the terminology that has entered the language. A mews was originally for housing birds, not horses. When annoyed you can reach the end of your tether. It was emphasised clearly that birds don't fly for fun, but for food, and only if they're hungry, and the way to tell whether they are hungry is by weight. A bird needs to be at its flying weight, but if it is too heavy, it is fed up, and will not fly. The last lecture/lesson of the day included tying a one-handed knot - the falconer's knot. Obviously while holding a bird on one fist it is important to be able to manage everything else with the other hand.

The hawk flying from the glove We went out into the field with Henry the Harris Hawk and flew him a bit more freely, taking turns to hold out an arm for him to land on and accept the food offered. We were given a glimpse of how manoeuvrable he could be, and we all got thoroughly wet, including Henry. The long grass and the rain soaked into everyone's shoes, and we all spent the rest of the day with wet feet, taking turns in front of the small gas fire when the opportunity presented itself. I think the American lady in the group had the worst time - she had the most inadequate shoes, and being from Texas I think she suffered more than the rest of us from the cold, damp conditions.

The weather was still pretty wet for the first display. Mr A turned up to see this with us, and stayed for lunch. He watched another display and went home, while the group was taken on a tour of the centre by its owner, and given lots of fascinating information. One of the most interesting facts was that the breeding enclosures contained lots of unsteady perches that swayed and required the birds to balance. In order to mate successfully, the male has to sit on top of the female, who is a good deal larger in many raptor species, and not likely to be sitting entirely still. He had received a male bird that came from a different breeding centre with only fixed perches, and realised that the bird had never learned to balance effectively. "Our breeding success improved significantly when we introduced the wobbly perches," he told us.

The weather had improved slightly for the last display of the day - it was no longer raining - but there wasn't a breath of wind and the low, grey cloud hadn't lifted. This meant that the larger birds were reluctant to stay out long because they were getting no help from wind or thermals, and the smaller birds weren't going to climb and 'stoop' to prey because of the poor visibility. I still haven't ever seen a stoop, which is when a hawk (e.g. a peregrine falcon) goes into a vertical dive at up to 100 mph, and takes the prey on the way down.

Bald eagle on the fist The displays featured a number of birds in turn, including the caracaras, a bald eagle called Wotan, another eagle called Lulu, and a number of owls. Owls have acquired a reputation for wisdom and intelligence, assisted by books such as Winnie the Pooh and the Harry Potter series, but their real nature came to light in the displays - they are pretty stupid, not very impressive, have no sense of smell, and have never seen their own feet. This is because their eyesight is pretty good, especially in low light, but only at a distance. They are effectively blind to anything close up - the trainer held food up in front of an owl's nose, and it peered dimly past at nothing in particular. But throw the food a little way off and the sound and sight of it prompts the owl to head over there and pick it up. Unlike the other birds, though, having picked it up and eaten it, the owls tended to sit there doing nothing in particular. Their special skill is flying from A to B and then stopping, rather than soaring majestically in wide circles to perch on the lofty branches of tall trees before gliding silently to the falconer's fist, or performing aerial acrobatics to catch food in midair. I was not impressed with the owls.

Tiny falcon on the glove In contrast, I was deeply impressed with the falcons, hawks and eagles, and also with the quality of the tuition and the knowledge of the team who work at the centre. The vultures weren't bad either. When I came home and told Mr A that I had signed up as a Friend of the centre and was now able to visit free of charge, he said something along the lines of, "I thought you might." I spent the rest of the evening and much of the next two days imagining that I might join a club and go out flying with people who own birds (there is a club that meets every second Sunday at a venue only 5 miles away), and visiting the Cotswolds centre every other week. Realistically, I hope to go there enough times to make it worth my while having paid to be a Friend. Lola II will definitely be forced to accompany me at least once as well.

It was also our ninth wedding anniversary on Saturday. Don't feel bad that you missed it - I was pretty sure that it was in May, but I had to rummage through the filing cabinet to find the wedding certificate with the actual date, which wasn't the date I thought it was. We went out for what turned out to be an over-priced and fairly ordinary dinner at a Thai restaurant - we would have been better off at Wofon for a fifth of the price, even though the surroundings would have been less glamorous. Mr A has provided a few interesting moments during the sixteen years we have been together, but I wouldn't have been without him. Happy Anniversary, Mr A!

Naughty monkey and me

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