“The sheer power and speed at which a Peregrine falcon torpedoes towards you as you swing its bate is truly a unforgettable experience.”
I visited the brilliant York Bird of Prey Centre, situated in York behind the walled garden at Burn Hall, Huby and houses over 70 different bird species. The place itself was only constructed and completed in June 2013 and has had visitors pouring in, especially when the weather had been good, to see its spectacular aerial displays, held twice daily. As well as this, you can attend the historical talks on the rich culture of Falconry as well as have your photo taken with some of the
most impressive raptors.
The first aerial display was truly breath-taking. The European Eagle Owl certainly made an impression on visitors, and it was most surprising to hear that they are native to the UK! Such a large owl in our British landscape, a dark shadow to most as it glides majestically through the inky darkness of the night. I have occasionally heard and seen owls during my bat transect walks, but never really known what they were, apart from the time I stumbled upon a Tawny owl with my flashlight, he just sat there perched, blinking with his vastly adorable dark eyes. Such gorgeous birds.
Then the Barn owls were equally as marvellous with their pale and clean complexion, they most definitely are the Nicole Kidman of the owl world. I must admit though, my favourite raptor has to be the black Kite, Shadow, who unremittingly kept on flying away and ignoring his keeper. It must be said though, that the keepers were absolutely fantastic and cared about their birds a great deal, so much so that they did not have the harness (creeance) and clip on them (or anklets)- and so the birds had the opportunity to fly away, never to return. As a scientist I would say that getting regular meals and favourites, as well as security and a dry home are most likely to be the reason for their sudden reappearance, but I would hope that it would be in part for their carers too.
The peregrine falcon however was the most spectacular of all of the birds. Such a small birds and yet the 120km/hr speeds it can reach are truly incredible. How such a small animal can reach frightening high speeds without doing any internal damage is what makes evolution extraordinary. The female that was used in this particular display was released for roughly an hour, and eventually, with such a high metabolism, the bird is forced back down to take the bait as the hydrochloric acid in its stomach consumes the last of its calories- hunger eventually gives way.
My friend got the fantastic opportunity to “jump train” her by swinging the bate and then releasing it as she came closer. He took a while to get the swing of it, but then again she was in no hurry to take it! She must have had a rather hearty breakfast prior to her flying. This is the basic application of how a falconer will train their bird, on the principal that their hunger will allow them to trust them enough to sit on them- this is called Conditioned Reinforcement (CR). These predators are solitary and so therefore would never really be in the presence of another bird let alone another species!
After the displays, we walked around the centre to look at some of the other intriguing species, one of my faves being the little owls and the cheeky Caracara– he also performed during the display and hopped around most of the time, trying to pinch the contents of your bag! In the wild these opportunistic raptors are the bandits of the Californian desert, and will actually hunt in teams to capture their prey. The vultures were also a great viewing, their sulky appearance can be deceiving, if they weren’t behind the cage they would sooner be flying off to scavenge than apparently seem recluse and skulk like a teenager.
Falconry really is a fascinating tradition, if you want to get started or want to learn more, here are a few websites which I found rather useful and interesting:
I got to hold a beautiful eagle towards the end of the day, rather heavy but still able to hold him. All staff were so friendly and volunteered to help clean, look after and do the talks. They were really knowledgeable too, and clearly passionate about what they did- so refreshing to see! I would again highly recommend a visit, I must admit it was a little tricky to find, its probably easier to punch in the postcode to Burn Hall next to it, then park up further along and walk straight in. I bought a Wowcher! Ticket so £6 for two people to enter was a bargain, and we were lucky it was such a sunny day too! They also offer falconry courses if your interested as well as private displays. I will most certainly be visiting again, keep an eye out for the videos I will be posting up soon.