Eye contact can be difficult for some, more so when your gaze is being sucked in by the unfaltering stare of a Eurasian Eagle Owl (Bubo Bubo, if we’re being precise), that just happens to be attached to your arm, and a hell-of-a-lot-bigger than she seemed in her cage.
One sunny day I found myself in Biggleswade (yes, it’s a place roughly here), attending a ‘Little and Large’ half-day experience at the Birds of Prey Centre. Normally £78 per person, we picked up a ‘toofah’ (2-4-1er) through one of the daily deal sites.
The start of the experience saw us donning hefty leather gloves and, most casually, holding various birds of prey on scarecrow arms including owls, falcons and an African Fish Eagle.
Most falconry gloves are left-handed (for right-handers), allowing the more dexterous arm to be kept free – you know, for wielding a sword or steering your horse. Birds wear leather tassels (no, on their feet) called ‘jesses‘ which can be grabbed by the fingers of the gloved hand to keep them from flying away (theoretically). Falcons often wear hoods to keep them subdued and get them slowly used to manning – human interaction.
Next on to the air show, which included a Bald Eagle and Lanner Falcon that can reach up to speeds of 90mph once in flight! The bird’s flying agility and speeds were evident when the trainer used a metal lure on a rope, lassoing it in and out of the bird’s path as it swooped down to snatch the lure out of the air. The final step is to always allow the bird to ‘catch the lure’, and reward them for their efforts.
This is the closest part to the actual art of falconry, which essentially trains a bird – most responsively a Falcon or hawk (hence also called Hawking) to work with a human to hunt together. Like most humans, the birds are unlikely to act without a steady supply of little treats (chopped up chicks – not for the faint-hearted) and the trainers wear a little bag on their belts for easy access. The final bird to make an appearance was a giant Condor (part of the vulture family) that clumsily staggers around on the ground but would be incredible to see in the sky with its 2.9 meter wingspan.
The final section (yes, deliberately skipping over the dire coffee break with instant coffee in little polystyrene cups) found us ‘flying’ our own birds – first an eagle then an owl. It’s at this stage that you really appreciate the accuracy of these birds in judging the speed, angles and effort needed to swoop from perch to perch. Holding up a ‘treat’, tap it twice on your raised, leathered wrist and watch as the birds swoop up in a silent arc to land lightly on your arm.
It’s a great activity to appreciate the workings of animals we rarely have the opportunity to get close to – both physically but also in understanding, considering that we spend our lives glued to the ground.
I think £78 is a little hefty for the half day, so would hunt for a deal, but if it’s a passion for you then go for it. There are longer classes with actual falconry training too so suss it out if you’re up for a flight of fancy.
Other places to try near London (which I have not):
- The Hawking Centre – Kent > http://www.thehawkingcentre.co.uk/ – £75 for a half-day falconry experience.
- Country-wide Falconry – Kent > http://www.countrywidefalconry.co.uk – £85 for a half-day ‘Hawk walk’.
- Hawk Force Falconry – Kent > http://www.hawkforcefalconry.co.uk/ – £70 for a 2 hour introduction to Falconry
- The Falconry School – Gloucestershire > http://thefalconryschool.com/ – £80 for a half day experience.