I don’t have any great affinity for birds. When the voucher popped up for a Birds of Prey Experience at the English School of Falconry, I basically thought: why not? The English School of Falconry sounds like one of the most English things you can possibly do. Bonus: it was in a town called Biggleswade, and oh wow did I want an excuse to say the word “Biggleswade” as many times as possible. I had visions of Harry Potter and Hogwarts and Hedwig. I want a self-sacrificing owl, you know? Plus, I always loved that tagline from the silly SNL sketch starring a falcon named Donald.
Now that I think about it, I don’t think we even hung out with any falcons.
My friend from Manchester drove down with her husband and met me at the Biggleswade train station (the town is so small and off the beaten track it is only open in the morning, shut and locked by 3pm). Driving through Biggleswade was sadly unimpressive. Arriving at the GPS-directed address, we drove through a strange world of hangars and muddy fields before arriving at a none-too-well marked lawn parking area and a further muddy walk to the school’s office. My friend’s husband just wanted to observe, having come as chauffeur and photographer for the day, but they made him pay GBP15 for the privilege. He’s a good sport, so he ponied up the cash and we raced to meet our group, having arrived a squinch late.
So then we held some birds. They were big and heavy and pretty. They were species of eagles, I believe, but I wasn’t paying that much attention. They were just big and heavy and pretty. Then we went to a little fenced in area where we got to catch some kites (maybe?) and owls, little ones. By catch I mean we held out our gloved arm, and one of the trainers called the birds (each bird has a name, like Trevor) and they came and landed on us, knowing they would get some food for obeying. Some birds were less obedient than others, and at one point I had two little owls on my arm. Which was pretty cool.
We moved to a bigger field for some hawk catching. At this point I got a close-up look at what they were feeding the bigger birds: torn up pieces of tiny, fluffy chicks, their yellow down smeared with blood. I didn’t want to think about that too much.
We watched a flying show, in which our tour guide, a cheerful and well-versed young Englishman who seriously looked like he was 12 years old, gave a running commentary on the different types of birds he showed off – egrets and pelicans as well as more owls and eagles. Maybe a falcon.
We went into a caged in area where we go to hold, bare-handed, little five week old owls. Four of them perched sleepily on a diagonal wooden rod, and it was awfully rude of us to disturb them. But they were very cute, sitting on my friend’s shoulder and nibbling her hair and ear, burrowing into the furry hood of her sweatshirt (as usual in this glorious land, it was late April but cold, cloudy, and windy.)
We were then free to wander about looking at the caged birds, most of whom were lazing about for their midday siesta. Birds are tremendously pretty. Who knew?
I actually had a lot of fun – it was great to see my friends for a couple of hours, and I fought off my terror at allowing birds to fly at my body (I have walked through New York City on more than one occasion and felt an imminent pigeon attack strategizing around me.)
I got some fun photos, which is, unfortunately the point of the experience. Despite our well-educated guide, who could spit out facts at the rate of four a minute, I didn’t get a sense of why the English School of Falconry exists. Why do they train birds? What purpose do the birds serve? A glance at their website listed “conservation” as one of their goals, but conservation from what? I imagine if I had read the little placards near each bird station I would have a better understanding of which birds are endangered, and how the centre helps breed and repopulate them.
But do they ever free them back into the wild? Could they even survive? These birds are so dependent on humans for treats, why would they even want to leave? I know I wouldn’t. Is that good, or bad? Ecotourism in a paradox. I’m just not sure if I agree with it. Near the beginning of the day, as we waited to hold some of the bigger eagles, we watched a bunch of enormous birds nestling in their feathers. Occasionally one of them would start to flap its wings and launch itself off the perch where it rested. Inevitably, they landed two feet away, their feet tied with rope to that same perch. There was something sad about watching birds try to take flight and failing. It was a terrible living metaphor.
Still, I had a good day. Does that make me a bad person? I pushed the metaphors out of my mind and just enjoyed the beauty of the birdies. I am uneasy with myself for this unthinking submission to a photo op. The twenty or so cheery English who were part of our group didn’t seem to be overthinking the moment, oohing and aaahing as the birds sailed around us. It’s just hard to know if the centre does more good than harm.
But how else was I going to pretend I was Harry Potter for a few hours?
What do you think? Is this kind of “interactive” nature experience good or bad for, you know, actual nature?
Scorecard: Vouchers – 1 Me – 1