With more than 70 birds at Ebbw Vale's owl sanctuary, it takes a lot of dedication and time to care for the birds of prey. CARYS THOMAS finds out what it takes to be a part of the team.
THE owl sanctuary is in Ebbw Vale Festival Park and houses a range of animals including a peacock, hawks, tortoises and rabbits. My trainer for the day was Malcolm Jones, a retired steelworker, who has been running the sanctuary for the last 14 years.
The sanctuary is open seven days a week and relies solely on donations to care for the birds of prey. My first job was to catch a barn owl by the name of Phillip who was in a larger aviary than he needed to be.
Luckily male owls are smaller than their female partners as my task was to catch him to transport him to a smaller aviary – this sounds a lot easier than it is.
First of all, you have to put on your glove, the majority of people are right handed and so the glove goes on the left hand to hold the bird to free your right for feeding.
Phillip was perched on a beam inside the aviary, the owls have small leather straps tied onto their feet and my task was to grab and hold the strap between my thumb and index finger tightly.
Once I had done this, Phillip was meant to perch on the back of my hand. Naturally, Phillip was having too much fun and would fly away as soon as I got near him.
On the fourth try, I managed to get him and put him in the travel box.
The aviaries have either sand or gravel and the volunteers rake and wash them down each day. They also pick up any loose feathers and refresh the water.
Owls do not drink a great deal of water and use it primarily as a bath. Kat, a volunteer at the sanctuary, tells me that the signs of an unwell owl is one who is consuming a lot of water and told me not to be too disheartened as it can sometimes take up to 15 minutes to catch a bird.
Mr Jones, 75, said: “We completely rely on the volunteers, we have about 14 now. The majority of them come on the weekends but we do need more in the week.
“It’s a lot of work but to watch the birds fly – you can’t beat it. They are beautiful creatures.”
Mr Jones took me to see the eggs which they have stored in incubators.
He said: “The way you can tell if a chick is in the egg is to shine a torch on to the shell, the difference in colour up the top is the air sack which means there is a chick inside.”
The sanctuary had recently had a wild tawny owl admitted who had been in an accident. They receive frequent calls from the police about birds who aren’t being kept under the right conditions.
The owl’s eye socket was completely swollen and vets couldn’t save the bird’s one eye.
Mr Jones tells me that the owl cannot be released back into the wild because he wouldn’t be able to hunt. The sanctuary receives birds from all over Wales and has to pay for the cost of treatment for vets and after care for the injured animals.
Mr Jones said: “People don’t ask enough information about the birds before they buy them.
“We had a fella come here the other week, he said my hawk isn’t fast enough. I asked him how much he was feeding him and he said one to two chicks a day, they need more than that.”
Two baby tawny owls had been found and handed in to the centre – baby owls are much fluffier than the adults.
I had the opportunity to release the owls into their new aviary. The two baby owls were easy to grab and flew out of your hand when you released them. Sadly the injured owl didn’t want to leave my hand so he was placed on a rock.
The new additions to the family will be named by students at Coleg Gwent who frequent the sanctuary regularly.
The owls have boxes at the top of the aviary where they usually sleep. The sanctuary gets through 7,000 chicks a month to feed the birds of prey which include barn owls, tawny owls, European Eagle Owls and American hawks.
They go through a box of 200 chicks a day. The falcons prefer moist food, so usually the chicks are dipped in a little water beforehand.
The biggest owl in the world is the European eagle owl – the sanctuary has Houdini who weighs around 5lbs and is its film star.
Houdini has appeared in the Fox drama Da Vinci’s Demons and for the BBC’s advert for the Olympic games.
Houdini was extremely receptive to Mr Jones and could walk on and off my hand at command. Mr Jones tells me the saying ‘as wise as an owl’ is not at all true and that owls aren’t particularly intelligent.
Before any of the birds are flown, they have to be weighed. If a bird is not at its ideal flying weight, they will refuse to fly.
The birds are attached to a string and are called by a whistle to fly to another trainer. As the birds get more confident and receptive to the trainer the length of the string is extended.
Mr Jones, 75, said: “You have to have a lot of patience in this job and passion about the animals but the first thing you need is a tetanus jab.
“I have kept owls for a long time, more than 40 odd years. It started with two and grew from there.”
He added: “We are open seven days a week; someone has to be here at Christmas time to look after the birds. It’s hard work but so rewarding.”
The team go into schools and shows around the county to raise funds and show off the birds of prey. The sanctuary is open from 10am to 5pm everyday and entry is free.