Everybody has a little obsession with something. In the past few years, I’ve noticed a substantial rise in owl themed products, scaling from stationary sets, to jewellery, to car stickers, and even furniture, and all that tells me is that a lot of people must love owls. Personally, I have a slight soft spot for birds of prey, especially owls, and yes, I have a fair collection of owl merchandise. At every gift giving event, at least one person will give me something owl themed, and for a recent birthday, a few of my friends clubbed together to get me a two hour owl experience session at the Imperial Bird of Prey Academy in Barleylands Farm, Billericay.
What better present could you get for an owl lover?
Meet Zara, the white faced owl.
After signing in and a quick safety run through (remember these are still dangerous animals) Poppy, our handler, brought Zara into the owl experience hut and passed her over to me. I had fed giraffes and elephants, had a snake wrapped around my shoulders, and been chased by a badger, but I had never handled a bird of prey, so I was somewhat shaky at first.
Zara was about 25cm tall and weighed about half a bag of sugar, so in truth, she was fairly easy to hold, and she loved a stroke. After a couple of minutes, holding Zara was as easy as holding a pen. Her eyesight isn’t fantastic, so she spent quite a bit of time nibbling at my fingers, searching for some food, but since she’s so small, it didn’t hurt a bit. For a bird of prey, there didn’t seem to be anything dangerous about her, and I thought she was adorable.
Edgar, the tawny owl, was a bit more vocal.
Tawny owls are the UK’s largest and most common native species, and Edgar was probably the UK’s most noisy. Poppy told us that he was imprinted, so he thought that we were his parents and his calls were his begging for food. As cute as Zara was, Edgar was a bit more entertaining: he wouldn’t stop squawking, and refused to sit still for a photo for most of the time I held him. And, like Zara, he was nibbly, although a little more powerful.
The best thing about Edgar is his pair of bulbous eyes. Since he is a nocturnal predator, his eyes are a particularly dark brown, and when he looks at you, its like he’s staring into your soul.
Then there was Bhuna.
Handling Bhuna the Indian eagle owl made me feel like I was in the presence of a serious predator. Eagle owls are pretty darn large; Eurasian eagle owls are one of the largest species of owls in the world. Bhuna’s plumage is a stunning autumnal brown and orange, dashed with black stripes and he weighs a ton. My arm started to ache after holding him for a couple of minutes, and I started to have to prop it up with my right arm.
Zara and Edgar had lured me into a false sense of security. I wasn’t prepared for the bating that Bhuna demonstrated while we were handling him. Bating is when the birds flap their wings while tethered, and as eagle owl that is clearly bigger than my head, he had pretty powerful wings. I was prepared to be nipped by one of the birds, but wasn’t expecting to be literally slapped in the face by this one.
After about an hour handling the three birds inside the experience hut, Poppy took us to pick up the barn owl we were going to fly. It was there she introduced us to the five barn owls they have, and where she told us that their barn owls are trained to ‘perform’ at weddings by flying the rings to the bride or groom. Any guesses at what I’m having at my wedding? Then she showed us where the staff at the Imperial Bird of Prey Academy keep all their equipment and explained the processes of caring for so many incredible creatures.
They are undoubtedly well looked after. The staff weigh the birds every day to check for any potential illnesses, and they adjust their food to suit whether the birds will be display flying or moulting their feathers. The three kestrels and merlin (a type of small falcon), that are absolutely tiny but beautiful little birds, were being kept inside the ‘bird room’ as it was a drizzly day and they don’t fare very well in wet weather.
Flying the birds
The barn owl (whose name I can’t remember but it definitely started with an ‘m’) was the part of the owl experience I was most looking forward to. I love barn owls for their gorgeous beige and white plumage and sleek shape as well as their energy. Every time I have seen barn owls being flown in displays, they are always the most entertaining to watch, so I was absolutely pumped when it was my turn.
Under Poppy’s instruction, I held up my glove for her to put food on as ‘M’ gracefully soared towards me, landing with a thud. Barn owls, due to their size, hit their prey quite hard so that they can kill it on impact, and I was taken aback by just how powerfully it landed. Sometimes ‘M’ would get confused and attempt to fly to the glove before we were ready, but most of the time, she was spot on.
However, as much as I adore barn owls, I think Chaos was my favourite.
All owls at the Imperial Bird of Prey Academy, except the burrowing owl, are handled with a glove. Not surprising, as Chaos is so small and light, that its minuscule feet can fit in the open palm of a child.
The energy in these tiny owls is astounding. As soon as Chaos came out the box, it was darting all over the place. Its legs are quite long in proportion to its body, and it spent most of the time running around on the ground. Wild burrowing owls live with prairie dogs in the Americas, and act as guards in return for living in the burrows, so they naturally do spend a lot of time on the ground. After a bit of coaxing, Chaos flew around before settling on Dan’s head and refusing to budge. Dan’s head seemed to become its preferred spot, probably because Dan is nearly 6 foot and Chaos would have a pretty good vantage point from up there.
Alas, the drizzle turned to actual rain, so our two hour owl experience was cut short by about 15 minutes. I was fully expecting Poppy to call it quits and send us home, but her generosity has no bounds: she gave us one last surprise, a bonus bird.
Freya the buzzard.
Of course I love the owls, but Freya was simply majestic. Poppy told us that she came from quite a difficult home prior to the academy and she has made mounds of progress since she arrived 18 months before. Even Dan got to handle this one – I asked if he could since he has a buzzard tattooed on his arm – and when he did, he was grinning from ear to ear. It was slightly unorthodox, but simply shows how important the customers are to the staff at the academy.
An owl encounter is the perfect gift for yourself, or someone who loves owls, birds of prey, or animals in general. I had a fantastic time, and it was something fun to do during the half term holidays.
Flying the barn owl was the most enthralling part of the encounter, as it was wonderful to see the birds in action, doing what they were designed to do. I loved the range of owls we were able to meet up close, and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to learn from such fantastic staff. Poppy was passionate, energetic and ridiculously knowledgeable, so a huge thanks to her for doing such a great job.
Plus, an owl experience at Barleylands is worth every penny as so much gets packed into two hours; the time simply flies by. It is also less expensive than you might think: only £49 for participants and £12.50 for any guests – remember that guests can also give some of the owls a cheeky stroke so they’re not just sitting around watching.