Reece Leonard, falconer has worked with Owl Magic for the last 9 to 10 years. The business was originally set up by David Morrison, a retired fireman in Kelburn Park. However, always a shoestring business, Owl Magic went bankrupt during the Global Financial Crisis. David rescued the operation, initially at his own expense, including the transformation of his back garden into an aviary, and managed to keep it going as a charity. He relied on volunteer workers, raising funds through charitable donations generated from displays. Overall David Morrison trained 12 volunteers on how to handle the raptors, clean their cages and feed them.
It was shortly after this crisis that Reece joined Owl Magic as one of the volunteers. He admitted to having worked in health care but found working with birds far more congenial than people. While the birds have their own way of talking back, they are much easier to manage. Owl Magic’s revenues come from educating children about wild birds, giving owl displays and hiring out the owls for pest control. Last year they managed to build a new seven thousand square foot centre for a modest £10,000 with sponsorship from MKM Builder’s Merchants and a lot of volunteer input. It represented a major improvement to the living conditions for the Centre’s raptors. They can also accommodate a range of rescued birds, large and small. From such modest beginnings, Owl Magic found itself becoming the largest ‘travelling collection’ of raptors in the UK; ie the centre takes the birds to displays rather than people coming to them.
As regards the centre’s education programme for primary and secondary children, Reece explained they are teaching the children that the loss of habitat is a major problem for wild birds. No longer are there nooks and crannies in modern agricultural buildings for nesting birds and wire fences have replaced hedgerows where wild flowers once grew along side. These former habitats were rich in insects, mice, voles, etc for hunting birds such as owls. Barn owls are one of Reece’s big concerns. The Barn Owl population has reduced by 70% since the 1980s. Intriguingly Reece observed that the Barn Owls are stupid! Their diet is restricted to mice and voles and with the disappearance of the hedgerows their number has dropped dramatically. Here we learn that the Tawny Owl, unlike the Barn Owl, has adapted and now has a diet of worms (a Mars Bar equivalent, says Reece!), fish (including garden pond fish), bugs and small birds. However, in the light of the recognised habitat loss, the EU started introducing incentives for farmers to increase habitats including bird friendly barns and re-introducing hedgerows with grassland strips alongside for insects and mice. Will this be continued after Brexit, this author wondered? To reinforce the habitat message tangibly, school projects include making nest boxes which, in turn, Owl Magic locates on suitable trees.
Reece briefly introduced Lily, his owl, which he had personally rescued. This led to a discussion on the failings of people who want to own raptors but are not prepared to put in the time to learn how to look after them properly. When Reece rescued Lily she had lost most of her feathers. However, with careful nurturing her feathers grew back, albeit one of her tail feathers remains upside down as a ‘scar’ of her experience. This led to Reece to explain that anyone in the UK can enter falconry without training or a licence. In the US you have to do a college course and find a falconer who will take you as an apprentice, a much healthier approach. Reece would advise people interested in taking up falconry going to a falconry club for a couple of years training before getting a bird.
During the question and answer session we learn that
- cruelty to animals legislation does not apply to birds, a strange anomaly.
- From time to time there can be friction between pigeon fanciers and falconers, not a surprise.
- the Owl Centre feeds the raptors with quail, mice, rats and chicks and much of the supply comes from the food industry.
- the difference between falcons and hawks is that hawks take their prey to the ground and falcons take on the wing, killing on impact.
For those who might wish to visit the Magic Owl Centre, it is by invite only. There is no charge which is to avoid licensing costs. However, the Centre welcomes donations. Contact : Owl Magic email@example.com. Thanks, Reece, for an informative talk.