Derek explained that he has been a practicing Falconer for over thirty years and has his own business showing his birds up and down the country at shows, clubs and to different organisations including care homes where they are very popular with dementia patients. He first became hooked when he was a plumber and a customer introduced him to a variety of birds of prey and allowed him to fly a Kestral; the rest as they say is history.
The first bird Derek brought out was a Harris Hawk which is native to North and South America. With bold markings of dark brown, chestnut red and white, they have the longest legs of any bird of prey. In the wild, these birds usually hunt in groups of 6 or 8 and are very intelligent so they work as a team to catch rabbits, snakes and prairie dogs. The Harris Hawk’s social nature and relative ease with humans makes it very popular with falconers.
Falconry was originally the art of using a bird of prey for catching food for the table and could be practiced anywhere by anyone however, when the Normans privatised the land, it was restricted to the upper classes. The gentry and especially kings would regularly go out for a day’s hunting, but it went into decline with the invention of gunpowder. By the beginning of the 20th century, falconry was almost extinct in Britain but it has gradually gained in popularity and is now recognised as a field sport.
The next bird to make an appearance was a Falcon. Usually dark brown or grey overall with white, yellow and black markings, they are characterised by a bullet shaped aerodynamic body, a hooked beak, pointed wings and sharp, strong talons. Falcons are diurnal so they hunt during daylight hours and have excellent eyesight; they can spot, chase and kill their prey quietly and efficiently with their beaks. Falcons are carnivores and feed on rodents, frogs, rats, small reptiles, bats and birds and probably originated in the Middle East; Arabs are renown for putting a hood on their bird for decorative purposes.
Following the Falcon came the African Spotted Eagle Owl. Originally from South Africa where it eats insects, it is known as a light eyed owl because it can see quite well in the daytime. Its ear tufts are actually an extension of its eyebrows and it can turn its neck 275 degrees because it has extra vertebrae in its spine.
The Little Owl aroused the ‘ahhh’ factor in the audience because of its petite size. It is the smallest owl to be found in Britain and was only introduced in the 19th century. It successfully colonised England and Wales because it filled the empty niche in our countryside for a largely insectivorous small bird of prey. Like most owls, they are noisy birds with a wide variety of calls and they can often be seen and heard during the day however, they are most active between dawn and dusk.
Next up was the White Faced Scops Owl which is native to the scrub desert fringes of the Sahara to the arid south western coastal region of Africa. In common with other small owls, this one is also nocturnal and largely insectivorous although it will take small birds, rodents and other mammals. Its call reflects the fact that it is related to the American Screech Owl.
The final bird to adorn Derek’s arm was the instantly recognisable Barn Owl. Known for its eerie screeching and hissing noises, the Barn Owl has specially adapted characteristics such as large eyes which enable it to literally see movement in total darkness, super sensitive hearing, super soft feathers allowing it to fly almost silently and long legs and talons to grab its favourite small mammals from the long grass.
Derek actively promotes his love of Birds of Prey and his demonstration enabled a few of us to interact with them but all of us to get a better understanding of their nature, their history and how he works with them today.