When I first left school at the tender age of 16, I was unfortunate enough to land a job with the local zoo. They put me on the falconry center where I received basic training on how to be molested by angry birds.
During a six month stint working with ‘show’ birds in flying displays, I witnessed one of the senior falconers lose a finger to a vulture and another have his eyelid hooked off by an irritated Abyssinian owl.
There were other incidents too.
A member of public had his toupee removed by a low flying kestrel and then tried to sue for loss of dignity. My girlfriend at the time had a barn owl skewer her left nipple with its talons. A very rare and expensive buzzard flew away, only to be later found in the Lion enclosure (Not good) and a secretary bird tried to mate with a small child in the audience.
“Ah, but that sounds like bad training to me” said Dennis Robson, falconer and owner of the Radical Raptors rehabilitation and awareness center, near Plettenberg Bay.
“A falconer needs expert training from expert falconers and lots of understanding and empathy to be able to manage the birds under his care”
He was right, I’m sure. None of my colleagues or seniors had had any real training in the ancient art and practice of Falconry, and all of them were about 18 years old.
Dennis, a large calm mannered redhead of a man, lifted his leather gloved fist into the air and whistled up to Charlie, a spotted eagle owl, who was sitting on an overhead branch.
The bird blinked once, twice, swiveled its head like a spinning top and then flew silently off into the distance.
“However” said Dennis, a note of irritation creeping into his voice “One must never forget that birds of prey all have individual characters and are not always 100% predictable in their behavior”
Charlie, so I had been told, was usually one of the most obedient and well behaved birds at the center. A star of the public flying shows that Dennis puts on for visitors three times a day.
But today he was on a mission. A mission to misbehave.
He was not at all interested in the little slithers of meat Dennis had been proffering. He was not in any way keen to go back into his holding box, and on top of that, he was evading capture as skillfully as a flea on a hairy dog.
“The show starts in fifteen minutes” said Dennis looking over his shoulder towards the entrance booth where families, couples, and tourists, were starting to queue in anticipation of the afternoon flying display.
“We cant fly any of the other birds whilst he’s still at large” said Dennis “Some of the bigger ones will see him as prey”
I couldn’t imagine what Dennis could have under his care that was big and fast enough to take out a mid sized owl, but I was soon to find out.
Eventually, like police and politicians everywhere, Charlie succumbed to bribery and flittered down to consume the larger than normal piece of meat Dennis had placed in his darkened holding box.
“Hoo hoo” he said from behind the now closed door, just in time for the arrival of the masses and the unveiling of a much more serious looking bird.
“Ladies and Gentlemen” began Dennis, addressing the members of public who had taken their seats in a small amphitheater “Let me introduce you to Bella”
And that’s when a magnificent and imposing black eagle flew from a nearby perch and landed on Dennis’s glove with a whoosh of wings.
She was beautiful. A creature of such stately presence that the audience began to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ in appreciation
I did too
“Originally, Bella was hatched in the wild near the Mountains of Ceres” said Dennis “But she suffered a broken wing and ended up here at Radical Raptors. The wing was fixed and she can fly very well now, but not well enough to survive in the wild”
He then hefted his arm up into the air, prompting Bella to take to the wing and fly back to her post
We all ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ again
Throughout his 60 minute show, this affable and passionate man introduces a plethora of unique and fascinating birds to the park’s visitors, all the while offering commentary on their physical attributes, their behavior in the wild, and perhaps most importantly, the man made problems that threaten them.
“We get a lot of spotted eagle owls coming through” he continued, opening the door to Charlie’s little box “In part because they tend to live near people and as such, are often being hit by cars or attacked by dogs”
He then went on to explain that the Radical Raptors isn’t just a show park but more a rehabilitation project that was set up to nurse damaged birds of prey back to health and then release them back into the wild.
“But there’s almost nothing you can do for a poisoned bird” he said with a frown on his face
Charlie was being relatively well behaved when compared to earlier, possibly because Bella, who was safely tethered to her post, was giving him the sort of look a cat might give a mouse.
Dennis then enlightened his audience to the unseen evils of domestic rodent poison and how it accounts for countless raptor and owl deaths every single year.
“When a rat ingests poison it will often go outside to die and that’s when they get eaten by raptors. Rather use mouse traps, or better still, build an Owl nesting box and encourage the best form of rodent control on earth to come live in your garden. The details of how to make one are on our web page”
He then told us how its not only domestic poisons that are killing birds of prey, but also hunters, illegal egg collectors, urbanization and perhaps worst of all, predator control techniques.
“Vultures are becoming increasingly scarce” continued Dennis as out loped BJ, a great big shaggy cape vulture.
He spread his enormous wings and then took to the air, before eventually settling down on a chair next to the audience.
“Don’t worry” said Dennis as the big bird ambled around peoples legs like pet dog “They only eat dead things”
Dead things, and people’s fingers if memory served me right, but then I recalled Dennis’s earlier comments about training.
He whistled and BJ loped over to him. He whistled again and the big bird flapped its wings and landed on his arm. This was a man who had an almost perfect control and understanding of his birds
It was also very obvious that he cared about them greatly
“Some farmers will put poisoned carcasses in the veldt in an attempt to kill off jackals. Vultures eat carrion; and they too end up dead”
Sad news. But his talk wasn’t all doom and gloom. There were plenty of awe inspiring moments when his kestrels were coaxed into dramatic aerial displays, his peregrines did their best to break the sound barrier , and his various owls flitted silently between volunteers in the audience who had been given the opportunity to hold a bird on the glove.
There was even a big black Bateleur eagle named Storm who seemed to enjoy waddling around the visitors as if he were some great black regal chicken..
“Most people leave the center with a better appreciation, understanding and affection for birds of prey” Dennis later told me after the show was over “And this really inspires me to continue with our work. And then there is the rehabilitation side of things….”
He briefly showed me an off limits area where he keeps the birds that he hopes will soon return to the wild; a series of quiet aviaries where injured animals go through a process of building up their strength.
“Typically we have anywhere between 3 and ten birds a month come through here. We try to have as little contact with them as possible so that they don’t get accustomed to humans. If all goes well, within two weeks or so they will be strong enough to go back home”
The ones that don’t make it through will instead live their lives out at Radical Raptors and will be trained to take part in the shows.
Dennis calls these ones his Eagle and owl ambassadors.
It’s a labor of love for Dennis and his partner Janet (who is an accomplished raptor artist) and they don’t receive any official funding other than that which they make from entrance fees and public donations.
But his dream is to eventually raise enough to cover the rehabilitation costs and also to conduct back up studies of the birds once they are released into the wild.
“I also want to begin school outreach programs whereby we visit underprivileged areas with some of our eagle and owl ambassadors”
I spent some additional hours with Dennis and Janet and his little six year old daughter Julia, and practiced at flying some birds and taking close up photos.
None of them tried to eat my fingers (except Storm the Bateleur) none of them ripped off an eyelid or grappled my nipples, and none of them flew off never to return.
Its all in the training, I thought to myself again, reflecting on how amateurish the zoo of my younger days had been. In the training and in the love and in the dedication too.
The Radical Raptors Bird of Prey Rehabilitation Center is open every day except Mondays. You can find it on the N2 between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay.
To find out more on the work of the rehabilitation center and also on how to build yourself an Owl nesting box, visit their web page