Earth and Environmental Science student Karla Gudgeon volunteers with owls to support their conservation, and even tries to fly like one.
When I laughed at baby snowy owl Fetlar's somewhat dubious landings from his first flights I never dreamt I'd actually be as bad! Yet that’s what happened this past summer when I completed a sponsored paraglide for one of the charities I volunteer for, the World Owl Trust.
The World Owl Trust is the central conservation charity in the world for owls, and does great work both here and abroad. The money raised by my paraglide for example will go towards starting a new project in Nepal, aiming to reduce the illegal trade in owls and owl parts. This will also assist with reducing the trade in other animals and their parts, for example tiger skins, as it’s often the same culprits involved in both trades.
I also volunteer at the Scottish Owl Centre, near Edinburgh which, although a business does support owl conservation globally, particularly the plight of the ashy faced owl (one of my personal favourites) in the Caribbean. This is, incidentally, where we were laughing at Fetlar's landings when he overshot the post and tumbled down the other side with an indignant baby squawk.
Teaching owls to fly
Teaching the young owls to fly is one of my all time favourite jobs at the centres as they start off so ungainly and progress to the fabulous birds we see in the wild. Many learn to fly and just a couple of months old so as my friend Trystan remarked 'its much easier to grow an owl than a human being.' All the babies start off as just bundles of feathers with huge eyes and equally large talons stuck out before gradually gaining their adult plumage, often with the head and bottom being last!
Other jobs I do at the centres includes washing out aviaries (owls are NOT kept in bird cages as in Harry Potter), weeding and maintenance of aviaries, flying displays, 'meet and greets' with the public, preparing food (pulling apart dead chicks - lovely(!)) and feeding the owls. This last one is predictably the owls' personal favourite!
Risks of the job
Also bandaging hands is a common occurrence as all owls come equipped with a dangerous set of talons and most of them aren't shy about using them if you displease them or frankly if they are in a bad mood that day!
Tythe, one barn owl, I'm sure suffers from severe PMT as she has stuck her talons in me three times. Not counting the times I dodged! A kestrel I used to know deliberately concealed how much slack he had in his lead rope, all the better to grab unsuspecting first timers like I was back then.
Naming the owls is something we only do with the imprints - these are owls which have been brought up by humans for whatever reason and therefore think they actually are human, thus never being suitable for release into the wild. They wouldn't be able to hunt or care for themselves and wouldn't know what an owl of the opposite sex was, much less what to do with them! Problematic for the continuation of the species to say the least.
Breeding is key to conservation
The other owls we have in the centres are mostly breeding pairs. They may not be able to be released themselves, but there offspring their offspring can, as their children are still raised by mum and dad and therefore retain most of the necessary instincts. This is an incredibly important tool for conservation and breed and release schemes are the main reason we still have European Eagle Owls in the Black Forest today after acid rain destroyed most of their habitat.
Overall I love my time with the owls as you can probably tell! Working with them is incredibly rewarding and they each have individual personalities. They are beautiful creatures and I would hate for them to become extinct, therefore I see their conservation as a high priority.
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