Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Cost of Conservation

I spent yesterday afternoon at my local Bird of Prey centre - an ideal place to practise bird photography I thought, whilst spending time in the company of some awesome birds I would never otherwise get to see up close.

Here is one of the first sights that greeted me upon arrival - a Burrowing Owl, padlocked into its cage:

All I felt was depressed.  This beautiful bird, which should be flying free somewhere in America, confined to a tiny cage.  How could this possibly be for the greater good?

Somewhat angry and downhearted, I decided nevertheless to go and watch the vultures' feeding time.  Here were two Hooded Vultures, native to Africa, sharing a much larger enclosure with an African Fish Eagle.  At least these guys had room to fly around.  When the keeper came along to feed them, I asked her to explain a bit about the rationale behind the centre.  More on that in a mo - first, here's a shot of one of the Hooded Vultures.  Check out those eyelashes!!

Vultures are not popular birds, thought by most to be dirty, ugly scavengers.  Whether you agree with the 'ugly' part or not, turns out they are actually very clean creatures - and critically endangered. 

In India, vultures are deemed useful, due to their penchant for disposing of cow carcasses.  However, in recent years, their numbers have declined by 97%.  Why?  Because of an animal painkiller, diclofenac, which the vultures are unable to break down.  Ten to twenty vultures can feast on a single cow carcass, but if this cow was given diclofenac shortly before its death, all the birds will be dead within a couple of days as a result of ingesting it.

Part of the role of Bird of Prey centres is to breed endangered species such as this in captivity, so that there will be sufficient numbers remaining that they can be re-established in the wild, should the need arise.  They are also active in conservation work throughout the world.

A big part of this is educating the public.  In this country, that's where these captive birds come in - so that people can get up close to them and see how amazing they really are, in the hope that with this will come a desire to protect them and their habitats.

With this in mind, I went along to the Flying Display.  Owls are one of my favourite species, though I have very rarely seen them in the wild.  It was fantastic to see them out of their enclosure and spreading their wings, like this African Spotted Eagle Owl:

A proper stunner!  It was great also to see how fantastic the keepers are with the birds - their passion really shows, and you can tell they believe in what they do. 

A further wander around the enclosures and I came across the majestic Bald Eagle.  A stunning sight, but again my heart sank as I noticed it was tethered to its perch:

I made my way towards the exit with conflicting emotions.  Glad that there are people out there working to help protect some of our most endangered birds, and privileged to be able to see them at such close range.  On the other hand, I can't help wondering whether there isn't a better way to do this - one that allows the birds more freedom somehow...  I didn't have time to stick around, but I'm going to go back to the centre soon and ask them about this.

I'll leave you with a couple of shots of a Boobook Owl, which was somewhat bizarrely tethered to a perch just in front of another owl's enclosure, and facing a wall.  Despite popular belief, owls are one of the least intelligent birds, but I couldn't help imagining what this one might be thinking...

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