Bird of prey centres here in the UK come in all shapes and sizes, offering a multitude of activities from basic flying displays to handling experiences and photography opportunities. Maybe you have visited a centre and come away with some unanswered questions or concerns? Hopefully, this page will help answer and address these.
All bird of prey centres open to the public for more than 7 days a year should by law be covered under the zoo licensing act. This should be displayed somewhere like the entrance of the collection or the gift shop. The zoo license is granted by the local authority that the centre falls within based on its location. Regular inspections are carried out by a zoo inspector and vet at certain intervals. Some people do complain that zoo inspections can vary vastly depending on the authority in charge but some things that should be in place are public liability insurance and an ethical review committee, should the centre receive complaints. The zoo license also carries basic guidelines specific to bird of prey collections.
At any centre the welfare of the birds really should come first even before that of the public visiting. When walking around you will probably see birds of prey in aviaries and tethered on perches; as you walk around it should be evident straight away that the birds are well cared for, but below is a checklist to help you out.
- Generally, the centre looks clean and tidy
- All birds have access to FRESH/CLEAN water
- Aviaries look in good condition
- Aviaries look clean inside – The floor is usually an easily cleaned substrate like sand or gravel
- There aren’t piles of food lying in aviaries (unless the birds have just been fed).
- Information signs are displayed for species
- The birds look content – This might seem hard to tell for the general public but if a bird is sat quietly on a perch it should be content; a bird flying against the mesh or looking agitated often indicates it is unhappy
Tethering is a hot topic for captive birds of prey but when done correctly with a well-trained bird it is often the safest way to keep them. Following guidelines, the zoo license states that a bird should be flown 5 out of 7 days a week. Things to look out for are birds being too close together or to the public’s reach or no barriers in place. Also, species should not be mixed e.g a Kestrel sat between two Harris Hawks. If you visit a centre and see a lot of birds tethered ask yourself does the collection have the time or the staff to fly all these birds? Tethered birds again need access to clean water in a suitable container and the perch for the bird should be suitable for the size of the bird and species. Again this can be difficult for the general public to judge, so if in doubt take photos and you can send them to Raptor Aid.
Some birds of prey are thought to be unsuitable for tethering, mainly owls. It is thought that owls do not like being tethered in open areas and it is not good for their feathered legs. They tend to be much happier free lofted (flying loose) in an aviary. Some other species like vultures and caracaras can also suffer when tethered and can respond better to being able to fly free in an aviary.
A broad subject which we can’t really answer on this site is what centres might be offering with their birds, usually in return for money or as part of the admission fee. The most common will be flying demonstrations, which often leave a lasting impression and are highlights for visitors, but they need to be well thought out using well-trained birds, ideally being both educational and informative.
How do you spot a bad demonstration though? Firstly, look at the birds. Are they in good feather condition or do they have broken feathers? Is the bird responding to the handler, or does it seem reluctant? This might be down to the bird on the day, but if all the birds in the demo seem unresponsive, it might tell you something. The commentary given can be a tricky one to judge but most of it should be common sense and informative; bad commentaries often try to play the birds down for the handler’s benefit or completely exaggerate the truth or facts. Humour is good, but not at the expense of the bird. If you’re really not sure, maybe make mental notes and ask questions at the end or again send it into Raptor Aid to follow up. Public participation is again a difficult one to judge because done correctly on a small scale can add to a demonstration. Bad examples have included vultures walking over people lying down and Harris hawks sitting on children’s heads – a flying demonstration should show natural behavior, not become a circus act. Experience days can vary widely but do your research and if you’re not happy about the centre and its birds, don’t book an experience session. Trip advisor is a great resource on the internet for checking other people’s opinions.
One more thing that divides people’s opinion is the touching of birds’ feathers and stroking. People sometimes feel the need to do this when in close proximity to birds of prey and some centres even encourage it. It is worth keeping in mind that this has no benefit whatsoever for the bird; a healthy bird will spend a large part of its day preening in order to keep its feathers in good condition and free from parasites. Stroking a bird can not only damage feathers but they get no affection from it. It can cause some birds to bite and there is always a chance of something being passed on from the bird to human (referred to as a zoonotic disease).
Above are just a few things which might answer some questions or make you think when you visit a bird of prey collection. Birds of prey centres should be about education and conservation which are stipulated in the zoo license. If you’re unsure about any of the above firstly speak to a member of staff at the centre and if that doesn’t help then just get in touch with us via our contact page.