Several years ago, for my birthday, my brother Matthew — we’ve always called him Maff — bought me a truly incredible gift: yes, a voucher for me to go and hang about with a bird of prey for the afternoon, at The Owl Experience Bird Of Prey Centre in Risley, Derbyshire! I grew up absolutely obsessed with fossils, dinosaurs and birds of prey, so I was instantly thrilled by this thoughtful surprise (uncharacteristically thoughtful, if we’re being brutally honest, and hopefully Maff won’t take offense at that). I’m only going to hold a bloody Harris Hawk! I thought. It’ll be just like when I was a boy…
(Except with a beard.)
Anyway, I sort of messed it up to begin with. Really messed it up, actually. In fact, Maff frequently wondered why he’d even bothered getting me the stupid voucher to begin with. As the weeks wore on, I promised myself that I’d soon arrange going to meet this Harris Hawk (he was to be called Steve), but every time I wanted to sort it out, something happened and I failed to arrange the appointment. You know how it is when you’re really busy with life and stuff. This pathetic show of indecisiveness went on for over a year. As you will know if you have also failed to do something for over a year, it’s hard to come up with valid excuses after the year-and-a-half period is up. You just feel like a bit of a wally by then. So it was time to get my act together. To finally go and meet the hawk you see in these dramatic pictures…
When I finally arranged it, the Hawk Walk was amazing, as predicted. Bob Morley was our host for the day. An experienced falconer (what you’d hope for, obviously) and a bit of a character (Bob didn’t mince his words), Bob knows his birds and, for the safety of us and Steve (more us), gave us some helpful advice before we set off. One of Bob’s best pieces of advice was, I thought: “whatever you do, don’t stroke him”. This came at precisely the right moment, just as I was imagining what it would be like to stroke Steve’s soft, feathery head. To rub my face upon his, like I had always wanted to. It’s a good job I didn’t do either of these things. At the end of the Hawk Walk, Bob would go on to tell us a truly grisly story of what had happened when Steve, in a fit of birdy rage, had lashed-out at him one fateful day. The attack had resulted in Steve’s talons going all the way into one of Bob’s thumbs. Right down to the bone. Tough as Bob clearly was, even he said he had been close to crying. And it’s not often you hear a falconer say that. These are folk who are used to being attacked by birds.
I couldn’t look at Steve in the same way again after that. But at least I could look at him, and look in general. I probably wouldn’t be able to look at all if Bob hadn’t given us that advice.
Steve was a reasonably sized male Harris Hawk, renowned for his mischievous attitude and uncanny knack for getting electrocuted by landing on pylons (Bob said this had happened twice over the years, and didn’t rule out it happening again). He was also a big fan of landing on people’s heads (the less hair, the better. He even landed on Bob’s! That was ace because Bob had confidently said a bit earlier that Steve knew not to do that).
For over an hour, Jen and I wandered about through fields, with each of our group getting a chance to have Steve elegantly glide across the countryside and land effortlessly on our special big fat glove (and me ask loads of questions, probably annoying the other people in our group with my child-like fascination that went on without end). My favourite part of the walk was when our falconer host said “Harris Hawks rarely kill other birds”. Hearing this, Steve immediately swooped on a pigeon sitting peacefully in a nearby tree. Within seconds, the rascal had murdered the unfortunate animal and was busy tearing it to pieces in front of a stunned audience (in Steve’s defense, Bob reckoned the pigeon, which hadn’t made any attempt to fly away, had been sick. Or maybe that’s just something they tell us so that us bird of prey beginners can go to sleep at night?).
Thanks for making it memorable, Steve.
The Owl Experience in Risley is thoroughly recommended by this blogger. Just make sure you wear a hat if you’re a bit thin on top, and be prepared for moderate violence. Rated 18 (depending on Steve’s mood, of course).