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

Bird Watching (UK) - - Breeding - WORDS: STE­FANIE BROWNE

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.

Owl de­vel­op­ment

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

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