Birds of Prey Shows – performance without dignity

Barn owl, late afternoon (but early for an owl). A world away from birds of prey shows.
Barn owl, late afternoon (but early for an owl).

Birds of prey shows weren’t really in my mind that winter when a caught a faraway glimpse of a barn owl.

In the half-light of afternoon in this Perthshire glen I thought for a fraction of a second I was looking at a snowy owl. No, just a barn owl – but equally inspiring.

That weird specialism, all that hovering in the silent dark, just glimpsed occasionally in the car headlights on some lonely road.

Unless you persevere, it isn’t that often you encounter them casually when there is enough light for even a distant photo.

Yes, it’s a tiny dot in a big landscape. On the picture below I bet you can hardly make it out, low down but dead centre, where the old bracken meets the pasture.

More importantly though, it’s also a real symbol of wild Scotland for some people.

It’s just a cast member for the show

Barn owl, low down, centre. Just hanging about for a few minutes.

For others, of course, it’s just another cast member in the show.

I mean those unsettling birds of prey shows that still exist here in Scotland – the real inheritors of the old and grubby trade of performing animals.

Performing animals – the old grubby trade

If birds of prey shows are your thing, there are plenty of opportunities, from game fairs to visitor attractions, via a range of countryside events on the annual calendar, where you can view magnificent raptors.

Except that all their aloofness, mystery and wildness have gone. They are reduced to sad scraps of feather and bone, sometimes perched on little blocks, or fretting on the over-large gauntlet of some wax-jacketed individual as he struts around the stand.

Want to strike a pose? Get a peregrine falcon as an accessory. Or even a barn owl. All that leather and those jingly bells that go with the image, to be honest, give me the creeps.

No better than the chimps tea party

A long time ago, I worked at Edinburgh Zoo; but even then, public opinion had turned against the chimps’ tea-party. And elephant and camel rides had also been quietly dropped many years before.

These days, every local authority (I think) in Scotland has banned circuses with performing animals, yet are happy to see this particular form of animal exploitation on their patch.

Try as I might, I just can’t see the difference between the falcon on the glove in birds of prey shows and the organ-grinder’s monkey. Both have had their natural dignity removed for the benefit of their owner.

Not many organ-grinders these days, but the birds of prey show hangs on – maybe because of its links to falconry and this tradition’s own associations with wealth and rank.

And in modern tourism terms, these captive birds and their flying displays are often categorised under ‘wildlife events’ in a breathtaking display of mis-representation. They’re not wildlife. They’re captive performing animals, for goodness sake.

Falconry folk apply for licences to hunt endangered birds – and get them!

Birds of prey shows have evolved from the much longer established trade of falconry, an activity that goes back centuries.

With hare coursing and fox hunting outlawed on both sides of the Border, astonishing news emerged recently that falconry is still permitted to abuse biodiversity in the name of ‘sport’.

Apparently, the government body charged with conservation in England actually grants licences to falconers so that they can molest endangered species such as skylark, fieldfare, mistle thrush and several more.

The licences are entirely free of charge and granted at the discretion of the government watchdog Natural England. The Westminster government is fine with this…

Famous Falconers from history

Famous falconers from history include – as you would expect – plenty of Scottish royalty. Apparently, Mary Queen of Scots flew a merlin from her window while she was held captive, like her falcon.

Her grandfather, King James IV, paid £1000 for a pair of Scottish gyrfalcons. (Wonder if that was Scots pounds, worth less than the English equivalent in those days, but still a reminder of the seedy side of the trade.)

More recently, another famous falconer was Herman Goering, in charge of Germany’s wartime Luftwaffe, and a chap especially noted for strutting round in fancy uniforms.

On the subject of warfare, TH White’s book The Goshawk is an extraordinary portrait of a battle of wills between trainer and falcon, written as the war-clouds loomed.

Sorry to be so gloomy! Maybe you’d like to see a wild peregrine, I mean a proper dignified one, and not a poncy decoration – dependent, cowed, hooded and blinded, that advertises the personality inadequacy of their owner.

If so, ‘peregrinus’ – from the Latin for traveller – can turn up almost anywhere. I saw one nesting on a church spire in a Perthshire town. They have whizzed past me on coastal cliffs, also in Scotland.

Further afield, I even looked up once and saw one zoom down a busy street in Munich in Germany. And, memorably, while walking a riverbank on a farm near Wagga-Wagga, Australia, I heard a rush of wings and saw a peregrine narrowly miss his stoop on an ibis.

You just have to keep a look-out and walk the wild (and not so wild) places, wherever you live.

But birds of prey shows? Do the birds a favour and give them a miss.

Tethering birds of prey to be made illegal?

By way of a footnote, here’s a potentially good thing though. On the 19th March 2022, The Times of London, England, reported that a proposal had been made, on the grounds of bird welfare, to outlaw bird of prey tethering for public display.

This was one of the outcomes of a government consultation of UK zoo standards.

Naturally, this has generated some hot air and huffing from the bird of prey poseurs. One ‘director’ of a bird of prey centre was quoted as saying that tethering birds was ‘for their own welfare’. (Not as good as not keeping them captive in the first place though.)

The proposal is to phase out the practice by the end of 2027, so let’s await further developments…

More about birds in Scotland. (Ones that fly free, naturally.)