Part of our remit as a Charity is to inform and educate visitors to our HQ about the diversity of wild birds of prey in the UK, particularly with regard to their care & future conservation. To do this, we keep a team of captive-bred birds at Stonham who are accustomed to working with our falconers as they put on a display for visitors to the centre. This gives us the opportunity to illustrate the various attributes of the differing species as they are in flight as the falconers give their commentary about the habitats and lifestyles of the birds.
So, with the changing of the seasons from Summer to Autumn comes the changing situation of many of the Suffolk Owl Sanctuary’s resident owls and other birds of prey. After wowing audiences in the spectacular flying displays during the summer months, the birds which are members of the summer flying team are offered a well earned rest in spacious, naturalistic aviaries where they can moult over the winter months.
It is then the turn of the falcons and hawks which are active between October and March, to make an appearance on the weatherings. This team of birds need to be brought back into work, having spent the summer resting, so October is a busy and challenging month for the sanctuary’s falconry team.
In the main, the winter team consists of Harris’ Hawks which will take part in field days and falconry courses, with the addition of two or three owls to assist with the ever popular Understanding Owls experiences which continue at the Sanctuary throughout the year.
When the new team of birds are taken out of the aviaries, they are too heavy to begin structured work straight away. The falconers’ first job, therefore, is to gradually bring down their weight until they are light enough to start training.
Resting weight and flying weight can differ by an average of 4 ounces for a Harris’ Hawk. That’s approximately 15% of its body weight, so the birds would be severely compromised if the falconers attempted to fly them without reducing their weight first.
Once the birds’ weight is reduced and on target, they are fitted with new jesses and anklets to ensure that the falconers can hold the birds securely without placing undue strain on their limbs.
Equipped thus, the birds can commence training for flying to and from the glove.
The first element of this is fist jumping: a perch is placed on the ground and the bird is encouraged to fly vertically up to the falconer’s fist for food. This starts to rebuild fitness levels and the repetitive calling to the fist reminds the birds that the glove is the location of their reward of food and should be the focus of their attention.
Once this behaviour is re-established, the falconers move on to exercising the birds outside, on the flying ground. In this situation, the birds are encouraged to fly further and more freely on a creance or long cord until they become accustomed to navigating their way freely around the flying ground once more.
Although, as with all animals, training is an ongoing process, the birds’ progress from aviary to free flight to the fist generally takes around 6 to 8 weeks.
The winter team will then continue to work with the falconers throughout the winter weather - those birds not required for courses, visits to schools, or other activities still need to be exercised daily.
The falconry team are always happy to welcome visitors to watch these lunchtime exercise sessions and engage with them on any aspect of the birds’ performance and training.