23rd March 2012 – No.33: Have a Go at Falconry

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My fiance Elliot’s birthday was coming up and I wanted to get him something a bit unusual. Elliot is very hard to buy gifts for because he doesn’t really like getting presents. What he does like, is animals. Elliot loves animals of all kinds and I thought, hey……falconry! I can do two things here; give Elliot an experience he’ll enjoy every time he remembers it and cross something off my list at the same time. So I started researching falconry experience days online. The best one I could find locally was at Knockhatch Adventure Park in Polegate; for £180 the two of us could have an all-day one-on-one with the falconers. We would get to handle a variety of different birds and even fly them.

On the day of the experience, the 23rd of March 2012, Elliot and I got on a train to Polegate. We were both quite excited and I was happy that Elliot liked his gift. At Polegate station, we got a taxi to Knockhatch Adventure Park. Once there, we told the man at the front desk what we were there for and he went to fetch the people running our day.

Elliot holding an Owl

Elliot holding an Owl

There were two falconers, a man and a woman. They introduced themselves as J and N and started by showing us around the area of the park where the birds were kept. We saw kestrels, hawks, owls, falcons, vultures, parrots and a whole host of others. As we walked they told us all about them; what they ate, how they stayed hydrated (by bathing in water), where each bird was from and all sorts of interesting facts. Finally, they equipped us with tough leather gauntlets and after some advice on what to do, what not to do and how dangerous the birds could actually be (they can cause major damage with their talons and beaks), we walked out into the training ground and came face to face with the first bird we would hold.  N took Elliot to one side of the field and I stayed on the other with J and the falcon. N told Elliot to raise his arm and falcon flew to it. J told me to do the same thing and the falcon flew back to me. We took it in turns to do this a few times while N and J told us about how falcons hunt and fly and how they look after them. Then N gave Elliot a fake rabbit on a string and told him to run with it as fast as he could to see if he could outrun the falcon. He gave it a pretty good go but the falcon swooped after him and pounced on the ‘rabbit’. It was amazing to watch. After that we held a variety of owls and got them to fly between posts and each other.

Elliot and I holding Harris hawks.

Elliot and I holding Harris hawks.

Next, we went on a Hawk Walk. We each were given a Harris hawk to hold and we took them for a walk in the woods. N and J explained that the hawks considered that it was our job to flush out prey as we were part of the hunting pack, so we followed their lead in approaching potential hiding places. N said there probably wouldn’t be any prey as they would know the birds used the area to hunt but we should look like we were doing our bit anyway as the hawks would get cross if we shirked. Occasionally our birds would respectively return to us as if reporting their progress. The hawk I had didn’t like men and would only come to me or N. She stayed well clear of Elliot, who seemed perfectly content with his own hawk. Lunchtime arrived so we returned the birds and headed off to the barn to get our lunch. Our meal was included in the price of the experience. While we ate, we chatted about our day so far and looked over our pictures and videos. Following lunch, we were invited to the lunchtime show done by N and J, which they did every day for visitors at the park. The show involved some birds we’d worked with, others we hadn’t and animals such as polecats and meerkats. Once the show was done, we helped N and J return the animals to their homes and even got to play with the ferrets and polecats. Meerkats, however are fiercely territorial (which is why they don’t make good pets) albeit very social towards members of their own group. We were not members of their group, so N and J put the meerkats away themselves. N and J take them home at night and they sit on the sofa together and watch TV. Apparently the meerkats really like watching ‘Love Actually’ and will sit and hug each other while they watch.

Me with a Turkey Vulture.

Me with a Turkey Vulture.

In the afternoon, we helped N and J exercise a few more of the birds, including a Turkey vulture, which looked enormous on my arm but considerably smaller on Elliot’s. The whole time we’d been calling the birds to us, N and J had been giving the birds small pieces of meat to reward them. I wanted to try, so I asked N if I could. She looked a little surprised and told me most people don’t want to handle the raw meat (which was little bits of a chick) but I could if I wanted to. She showed me how to discreetly remove the meat from the pouch and slip it into my gloved hand without the bird seeing (otherwise it might go for my unprotected hand looking for food). Elliot wanted to try too and soon we were both calling and rewarding the birds without assistance. N and J then told us we had worked well enough with the birds to do something they don’t let everyone do; take a falcon through its exercises all by ourselves. We attached pouches of dead chick to our waists and took the falcon out on the field. Working together, we lured him from post to post and between ourselves while N and J watched from a distance. It felt amazing to have even that brief connection between us and the bird, and humbling to witness the beauty and majesty of the falcon as he took flight at our request.

When we were done, N and J told us they had apprentices who came every week who didn’t do as well as we’d just done, which was a huge compliment and the cherry on the cake of an incredible day. It was the first thing I’d ever done off my list with Elliot and that made it even more special. The memories and the photos I have of Elliot’s face lighting up with joy will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Elliot with an owl and me with an American kestrel.

Elliot with an owl and me with an American kestrel.

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