LEND A HELPING HAND
Wildlife centres can often be the only venues for many to see birds close up. Here, one volunteer explains the important work they carry out
NOTHING CAPTURES PEOPLE’S interest in nature quite as completely as babies. Whether it’s seeing sprightly lambs in the fields, an obedient line of ducklings following their mother, or the straggly balls of fluff that become our most magnificent raptors, very few of us are immune to their charms. But while lambs and ducklings are a relatively common sight, for most of us the youngest birds of prey are reserved for admiring in photographs, alone.
This secret nature is what draws visitors to wildlife centres during ‘baby season’ – the opportunity to see what a Tawny Owl looks like when it has just hatched, or to discover whether Barn Owls are as beautiful when they’re a week old as when they’re gliding ghost-like over the fields (they’re not, by the way, they look a lot like miniature dinosaurs at that age). These types of questions were what drew me to volunteer at a wildlife centre local to me. I often watched the behaviour of birds near my home in the Fens and wished to understand them better. But books and observation from a distance can only get you so far. That was almost two years ago, and volunteering has transformed my opinion of the birds we all admire. I never really appreciated before how much personality an individual bird can have – perhaps it was my naivety, but character and individuality were not traits I had witnessed. ‘Baby season’ changed all that. Baytree Owl & Wildlife Centre, near Spalding in Lincolnshire, is home to about 90 birds and a number of other native species (including the most recent arrival of a Fox cub). The centre is run by Mark Birdsall (yes, that is his real name) with the help of a team of dedicated volunteers and, by the middle of April, we all have
our work cut out raising the next generation. Some of the birds will stay with us and become part of the flying display team to teach visitors about different species, while others leave for their new homes after about four weeks, going on to become part of breeding programmes elsewhere, or joining similar centres. But that means four weeks of growing up to do at Baytree first. When I visited the centre, the nursery room was buzzing with life and Mark gave a rundown of how the youngsters develop. “Owls lay every other day, but they sit from day one,” explains Mark, struggling to be heard over the sound of three-week-old Barn Owls hissing for food. “They’re unlike a lot of other raptor species, who wait until they’ve laid a full clutch before they sit, so that they all hatch together.” In the wild, this technique would allow the parents to ensure someone always survives if food is short, because extra babies can become extra food if times are really hard.
Once hatched, the owls won’t open their eyes until they’re five days old, and it takes a while before their sight fully develops. “That’s why there’s always a lot of head bobbing about and dancing around going on, while they’re
trying to focus on things and figure the world out,” says Mark. Watching a young owl investigate its surroundings at this stage is much like watching a kitten or puppy gain confidence on its legs. Wings flap inelegantly and oversized feet attempt to balance on unfamiliar surfaces. They go through a kind of ‘toddler’ phase of putting everything in their mouth to see if it is edible. But, incredibly, every one is an individual. It’s like watching a child develop into their own person, knowing you’ve played a part in who they end up becoming and hoping you didn’t fail them. Says Mark: “We creche-raise the birds so that they understand they’re an owl, as well as being fed by people. When they mature at five or six, a lot of them go straight into breeding programmes, so it’s important they have that association.” If an owl were raised alone, without exposure to its own species, it would imprint on humans and fail to understand that we’re not the same, which would make using them for breeding impossible. Though they won’t be fully fledged until about 16 weeks, they’re ready to start learning to fly at 10 to 12 weeks. It’s a fascinating process to watch as they test their strength and learn to navigate (often resulting in some embarrassing crash landings). Witnessing them grasp a new skill for the first time is a truly proud moment. Before I began volunteering, I was apprehensive at the idea of captive birds and how it would make me feel, but I realised that there must be a reason humans have had such a close relationship with birds for centuries. In 2015, Chris Packham wrote a moving article for BBC Wildlife about the place zoos and wildlife centres have in conservation. His experience of
Watching a young owl investigate its surroundings at this stage is much like watching a kitten or puppy gain confidence on its legs
getting close to a captive lemur at his partner’s zoo is particularly apt: “I’ve seen wild lemurs, but this purring prosimian pressing his fluffy armpit into my palm was a powerful moment. Because I touched him, smelled him, nearly got bitten by him. I liked him as an individual – ultimately, I ‘felt’ him.” His words are the exact reason I spend my Sundays volunteering at Baytree. Because the difference between seeing a bird fly past your window and watching it choose to fly to your own hand is immense. Both are fulfilling experiences, but looking into the eyes of another creature and feeling its own individual character develop, its personality flaws and its incredible strength, creates a bond with nature that watching from a distance just can’t achieve. Interacting with a wild thing – because that’s what they still are inside – is the most humbling privilege and it encourages even the hardest heart to take an interest in the nature that surrounds them.
A Tawny Owl that hatched in May 2016. ‘Tawnies’ are Britain’s most common owl species and the only one that makes the well-known quavering hoot
Siberian Eagle Owls and a Tawny Owl at about one week old