Shad goes to Huxley’s Bird of Prey Centre

Hidden at the back of a garden centre in Horsham is a beautifully kept lawn bordered by fragrant honeysuckle, purple violets and pretty pink rhododendrons.  As you walk around the garden, you can view a collection of wonderful birds, each with a story to tell.  John and I visited Huxley’s a couple of years ago but we decided to return last weekend to see Huxley himself and support the efforts made by the staff and volunteers who care for the residents.  The humans dedicate their time building trust with the birds, training and flying them, cleaning the aviaries, weeding the paths and carrying out lots more not so glamorous work required to keep the centre functioning and ensure the welfare of the birds.

 

In an aviary at the top of the garden is a 42 year old eagle owl called Huxley who presides over the staff and the rest of the birds with dignity.  As I ambled towards him, he fixed me with his piercing gaze and sounded that uniquely soulful hoot that said he recognised me straight away.  We exchanged a look of mutual understanding – two animals, wild at heart, living in a world where we relied on kind humans for our care.  I wondered how Huxley had ended up in an aviary and felt grateful that he was prepared to be on display to show people how handsome he is and help educate them about the ways of owls.  The birds at Huxley’s have arrived from various places.  Some were injured in the wild and many of these are taken to another location away from public viewing where they are treated and rehabilitated for release back into their natural habitat.  Some birds cannot be returned to the wild such as the falcons that have been illegally bred as hybrids (unnatural crosses with different species of falcons) and are not allowed to be released as they might contaminate the natural breeding stock.

Huxley - 42yrs old

Huxley – 42yrs old

Igor (another eagle owl) was found tied down in his owner’s garden being buffeted about in a rainstorm.  He was obtained as a 4 month old by someone with no understanding of his needs and kept in a shed before being tethered in a garden for years with a poor diet and no opportunity to exercise.  In poor physical condition and lacking the skills required to survive in the wild, Huxley’s took him in and began his journey back to health and happiness.  The staff said that owl feathers are not waterproof so poor Igor must have been very cold that night he was rescued in the rain and it took 2 or 3 years for Igor to regain his trust of humans.  So I was chuffed to bits when he appeared with one of the keepers sitting calmly on his arm while everyone ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ at his soft feathers and fluffy belly.

 

Huxley’s practice the principles of falconry with the captive birds in their care and are careful to ensure that each bird only does what it is comfortable and willing to do.  This gives the birds the chance to engage in some of their natural behaviours and the opportunity for people to watch and learn.  Some of the more confident birds were brought out one by one to give us a great demonstration of their flying and swooping skills.  A lovely barn owl showed me how to catch the lure (an imitation of a prey animal used to entice the bird) and one of the hawks showed me a clever way to make sure no one pinches your food.  It’s called mantling – a special posture that involves using the wings to shield their prey from other birds.  I don’t have wings and there are no predators at home trying to steal my food, nevertheless it pays to be ready for any eventuality!  As John and I said goodbye, a busy worker bee buzzed past me on his way to collect pollen from the geraniums and the kookaburra laughed haughtily as I asked John to pick me up and put me in my basket.  I was one tired pussy cat.

Shad does Huxley’s again

John and I took a picnic to the Birds of Prey Centre in Horsham this week.  We spent the morning wandering around taking photos, talking to the keepers, admiring the birds, having a laugh with the kookaburra and gazing at the flowers in the garden.  We got chatting to Julian, the owner, who works incredibly hard and gives every ounce of his energy to caring for the birds at the Centre.  He told us about some of the captive-bred birds of prey he has rescued, like the owl who was tethered in someone’s garden all its life, enduring all weathers and horrible children throwing stones at him, or the hawk who spent the first seven years of its life in a barn and never flew.  Sad stories indeed, but happy endings for these proud creatures now cared for at Huxley’s.

Huxley’s Birds of Prey Centre and Gardens

Despite the thick dark rain clouds overhead, the weather stayed dry, so we ate on the benches overlooking the well-kept lawn.  I had tuna and John had an egg and bacon sarnie which looked rather scrumptious.  I was feeling a little impish so I employed one of my ‘stretch and swipe’ techniques, managing to acquire a large piece of bacon, a blob of egg and a crust from John’s sandwich.  Good haul!  I had to nuzzle around him for several minutes afterwards to get back in his good books, but he was suitably impressed when I bravely fended off a wasp before having my early afternoon nap.

Flying Area

Flying Area

I was awoken at 2.30pm by Huxley the European Eagle Owl hooting at his dad (that’s Julian) as he got ready for the flying displays.  We were treated to a whole two hours of flying (pretty darn good for a fiver) and volunteers from the audience helped Julian and his team to fly the birds.  I wanted to have a go but the gauntlet (leather glove used in falconry) was too big for my paw and there were concerns for my safety.  Something about small mammals and talons!  Although John might argue that there’s nothing small about my gluteus maximus!

Huxley

Huxley

I opted for staying on my seat whilst we watched Cola the energetic falcon (lanneret) chasing the pigeons from the trees and Neo (another lanneret) fly to a swung lure (leather pad) which represents their airborne prey.  Khan (the Harris hawk) played hunting games with a ‘dummy bunny’ (dragged lure for a bird that would normally catch ground game) and the a rather enthusiastic kestrel called Turbo came out and squawked his little head off trying to impress his dad.  Mature majestic Marsha (a buzzard found in the Kent marshes) who flew graciously from person to person, not bad for an old girl of 30.  Most birds of prey typically live 10 to 15 years in their native environments but can live up to 5 times longer in captivity, thanks to good healthcare, plentiful food and no stress associated with surviving in the wild.

I always leave Huxley’s with a great sense of awe at the dedication shown by Julian and his team.  It’s not easy to run smaller zoos like this one with a limited budget and all the registers, insurances, inspections, licenses and other bureaucratic ‘hoops’ they have to jump through.  Calm down Shad!  Julian has a great sense of humour and was quite cheeky to me during the displays, teasing me because I asked him if birds have teeth!  But I can easily forgive such mischief because he loves cats, and has 3 of his own (all rescue of course).