Prince the Ashy Faced Owl goes from strength to strength in his training for public flying displays – until he has an audience!
Another day of cleaning and burst hosepipe fittings meant I was more than a little damp by the time I got to what is currently my favourite time of the day; owl school! Today I took Kenya back to basics and rather than take the little White Faced Owl into the big display arena, (where she was a little overwhelmed yesterday) I would reinforce the good work we had done back in her aviary. On home turf she feels more comfortable and confident of course, and she flew to my glove for food with only a little hesitation. Good stuff. Repeat three times then move on to the next step methinks.
Prince the Ashy Faced Owl has so far been the star of the training sessions. Today I was hoping to build on his successes to see if he would fly further. With the indoor display arena still being used as a workshop for the joiners who are building the roof for the Education Zone (in all weathers!), Prince was somewhat distracted by all the extra perches to land on while flying the whole length of the room. He showed signs of learning what is expected of him today, where he is supposed to go next for the next peice of food, anticipating and flying on to the next place. All good stuff unless the next place today is scaffolding that won’t be there on the big day!
Here’s a short video clip of Prince flying. Excuse the blurry picture – it’s not easy holding the camera in one hand, showing the bird the food, and flying the bird to the other hand – you need three hands for this job!
Flying easily 12 times for small pieces of food, Prince did wonderfully! The only problem arose when the joiners returned from their lunch and wanted to start work again. I told them to carry on if they liked, or watch Prince for a few minutes as we finished off his training. Adding something unexpected like this can go either way when training a free flying bird. I had the safety of there being a limit of where Prince could go to if he was to freak out – the doors were shut after all. Well Prince did stop and stare at the new audience, and he had eaten a dozen bits of food so his stomach was getting full, so would he bother flying again? Yes he did! Just a couple of shorter flights then look round at the workmen to see that they hadn’t rushed over to grab him or something. I was pleased he moved at all! Taking Prince back into his aviary I gave him his main meal as reward for doing so well again. Good job Prince, now if you can do that for 300 people instead of 3 we’re on a winner!
With the work continuing in the display arena I couldn’t fly any more birds in there for the day, but I was determined to do some more work with some of the other birds.
The team of trained owls at the Scottish Owl Centre is quite varied and represents a good cross section of owls from around the world. Some are more familiar birds like the Barn Owl or Tawny Owl, others like Prince and Kenya are more unusual. Some are very big, like the Milky Eagle Owl I have been doing some walkabouts with recently, and Broo the European Eagle Owl, definitely the largest and heaviest bird in the team. I have had Broo fly to the glove a couple of times inside her aviary before, in my first couple of weeks working here. There has been a break though, and she was nervous about me anyway. Today I decided to have another go. Nothing grand on the agenda, just see if she would fly to the glove. It took a decent sized piece of food to bribe her off her perch, and the first time she changed her mind and flew right over me. Second time she went over too, after almost landing on my gloved arm then bottling out. Third time lucky she landed and ate. Good girl Broo! I stepped her back onto her perch and offered a food reward, that was enough for one day and she did well.
There is one of the display birds that I haven’t mentioned before. One that, I have to confess I’m more than a bit worried about. He isn’t the largest owl in the world, quite a bit smaller and lighter than Broo in fact. He is a Great Horned Owl though, and what they lack in size they make up for in aggression and intent. I’m sure he is a great bird in the displays, but I have never worked with an imprinted one before, and my experiences with a part-imprint at my previous job means I have more than respect for these birds, more like barely controlled terror!
When I arrived to work here, Hudson the Great Horned Owl was not in the best of moods or condition. From what I see from him so far he is quite a ‘highly strung’ individual of a highly strung species of owl. The move from the Scottish Owl Centre’s first location in Campbelltown to the new one in West Lothian seemed to have been more traumatic for Hudson than many of the other birds. Add to that a new aviary upon arriving, quite a lot of wind and rain, plus workmen making loud noises nearby and Hudson was mentally in a right old mess. He got himself so worked up fretting about the situation, and got himself so wet and bedraggled that he couldn’t fly up to a low perch and seemed obsessed with protecting his food from theft that as the saying goes, ‘his head was done in’. Seeing this only getting worse each day I had to do something to help him. I took him into my house for a couple of nights. Having told you my fear of these birds you can imagine that having him in my spare bedroom was something akin to inviting a dangerous psychopath round for a nice chat and glass of wine! Still, the bird needed help. After a couple of nights messing on my floor, Hudson dried out enough to climb up to look out of the bedroom windows. (Hello neighbours!) Taking this as a sign he could go outside I kitted his aviary out with a large ‘pet carrier’ with low perches for him to climb, get off the ground or out of the rain.
Well it has taken a few weeks but Hudson is in fine fettle and flying well in his aviary without walk-up perches. Pleased to have him fit and well again I’m now left with the quandry of how to go about training him for the displays when I’m still quite scared of him! Today I took a chance – and food – into the pen to see what I could do. I have worked with an aggressive Buzzard in the past so used a similar diversionary tactic to get him away from the high perch while I get into a good position (with the door to my back!).
Things didn’t go great, but I didn’t get mangled, so I’m calling it a success. Hudson swallowed the first piece of food quickly and made a runner for my feet, grabbing hold of my trousers with both sets of talons. I am so glad I was wearing so many layers of clothes today! I barely felt his talons through the three layers of thermal clothing! Trying to gain something positive – and get the bird to let go of me – I offered him food from my gloved hand. He took it and scurried away. I got out of the pen with mixed feelings about this experience. He basically bullied me into giving him all the food! Ah well, it’s all ups and downs when training birds of prey.
So I’ll leave you all with a positive. Here’s a pic of Prince sat on one of the posts in the display arena, looking cheeky. Til the next blog, gnite!