Everyone knows Cambridge students must study. But what happens when Davies-Jackson scholars tuck their books aside, put their
quills pencils away, and head off for the summer? Here current scholar Deanie Vallone details her summer adventure of working with birds of prey.
This past September I spent two weeks working at Eagles Flying: the Irish Raptor Research Centre. The centre houses over 350 birds and animals, most of which are raptors (eagles, owls, hawks, and falcons).
Before moving to England I had worked at a small raptor centre in my hometown for three years, mainly focusing on raptor training and public education. Eagles Flying took me on for a two-week internship to let me experience the workings of a larger centre. We worked long hours (usually from 8:00am to 9:00pm) and main responsibilities revolved around general raptor husbandry (lots of cleaning, food prep, feeding, and handling of birds). I worked with other trainers to flight train birds for the show, but my biggest responsibility was personally flight-training two young barn owls hatched at the sanctuary.
Observing the way in which the centre was run really proved to be an eye-opening experience. During the show, the trainers would have birds land on audience members’ hands and people in the audience were even allowed to touch the birds. This is something we never did at my centre, the differences being dictated by state regulations and personal training techniques. Eagles Flying really advocated the idea that these animals are not inherently aggressive, and I think their approach really made visitors more appreciative and respectful of the birds.
Coming from my small centre back home, I loved that I was able to work with a wider variety of birds, some of which I had never even seen before.
Leilah, a saker falcon, was one of my favorites. She is an extraordinary flyer and is so gentle I handled her without a glove. Khan, the steppe eagle, was another bird with which I worked closely. He always had a rather surly, bewildered expression on his face, but he’s a gentle giant. I spent most evenings hand-feeding him chicks and trying to avoid being sprayed with egg yolk (I failed most of the time).
My favorite experience at the centre, though, was training the two young barn owls, Benjamin and Beth. My job was to train them to fly to me for food, and on Day 1 neither of them flew to me. But I persisted, and at the end of my two weeks they were calling to me for food as soon as I walked in the mew, and flew to me consistently. Since I was the only one working with them, I spent a lot of time handling them, walking them around the centre, sitting with them in their mew, and, of course, feeding them. It was really interesting watching the progression over the two weeks as they got used to my presence. By the time I left they were so comfortable with me they would perch on my shoulder and let me touch their feathers, something raptors rarely allow.
The whole experience was just unbelievable. The work was incredibly hard; I was always tired and dirty and wet and covered with feathers, but it couldn’t have been more rewarding. My experience there just confirmed my desire to keep the natural world in my life. I love working and studying at university, but it reminded me that it’s so crucial to get yourself out of the house, out into nature. Most specifically I found how necessary it is to educate the rest of the world about the importance of conserving and respecting nature. If we don’t do it, no one will.
– Current scholar Deanie Vallone