Last weekend 4th and 5th February 2023, I was reading two articles of a Great Horned Owl that had been causing issues in the area of Dudley of the West Midlands, England. Great Horned Owls are a species of the Eagle Owl family, Bubo virginauns. They are a large species found in the Americas and very adaptable to different environments. Being a large owl means that they can take good size prey which may range from rodents, rabbits, other birds and species much larger. One interesting thing is that they do not wander too far. Once they have established an area, they can stay there for their life time. They can also become very protective of their established areas and will show aggression towards anything they feel is a threat. So why is a Great Horned Owl flying around in the West Midlands of England?
Well before I get into why, I feel I need to explain to those who are not aware of issues we have in the UK when it comes to people being able to have captive raptors. Currently there is no legislation in place from stopping anyone in Britain buying a bird of prey. It is possible during all twelve months of the year to actively go and purchase one, even if you have no prior experience, no land permission to fly one on and no enclosure nor husbandry that will be needed once the bird has been purchased. Many I speak to think or believe there is a license that people must obtain before even owning one This is simply not the case . The price of birds can range from as cheap as free, to thousands of pounds depending on the species, but also who is breeding them.
We are also not well governed by any institutions in the UK, we have an organisation known as the Hawk Board, however you do not have to register with them, most, I would imagine do not even know they exist. They also have no power at all when it comes to legislation but can give guidance to all who want to buy a bird. They state on their website “whatever bird interests you, whether you are a breeder, falconer, display-er or rehabilitator, we are there for you”. The Hawk Board claims they represent all bird keepers and are there as a voice to the government on behalf of all bird of prey keepers around the UK. We have one organisation in Britain which is the Independent Bird Register. This organisation tracks and traces any lost birds that have been reported. They help to re home any lost birds that have escaped or flown off when in the field. Again, they give guidance on raptor keeping, rings and husbandry. The IBR is not government run. It was privately set up to help people keeping raptors and thank goodness they were as they are the only organisation with an up-to-date database of what is happening in the UK. Owners can register raptors with ring numbers in case they do go missing then when reported they can be put on the database. All birds reported lost are put on the register and then visible for the public to see, (very interesting viewing.) Other than that the only groups that may be there for people who fly birds of prey are the falconry clubs located around the UK. Again, falconry is very different to just keeping raptors such as the owl I shall be discussing.
Birds can be purchased in many ways from online advertising such as Bird trader, Gumtree etc. They were even accessible on social media platforms until recent times. I have also seen some zoo’s advertising birds for sale in the past which has surprised me. Should a zoo really be able to sell animals they breed, especially to those who have no idea of what they are doing?
Back to the Great Horned Owl.
I have never flown a Great Horned however people I have spoken to who have say they can be an aggressive species. Maybe that is why you don’t see many in displays? I would even bet that you could possibly purchase one for under £500, a bird that could easily take medium sized mammals such as a Hare.
So where has this owl come from? Who is its owner? And why has it been out since October! This is just one of the reasons I believe more legislation needs to be in place to stop such issues from happening and what on earth is the point in owning a species like a Great Horned?
This owl has now been loose for 3 months. It is obviously fending for itself. Birds of prey like the Great Horned Owl can go a week without feeding at a time due to the nature of the prey they can eat. I would not be surprised if the owl has been eating species like hedgehogs, rats and other birds including owls, dare I say someone’s cat. Now we are approaching the spring this bird’s natural behaviour may have started to kick in, showing aggression tenancies possibly due to breeding season. There may be a chance that this bird may have even laid eggs for all we know. It is not unusual for a bird to lay eggs even if they have no partner This may be why it is becoming aggressive towards people when they are walking in the bird’s area.
This is not the fault of the Owl, not at all. The fault lies at the fact that anyone can purchase them, anyone can breed them. There is nothing in place to stop it. Should we have birds of prey in captivity? Absolutely! But in the correct hands, being used for the correct purposes. This bird is just behaving in a natural way. It has found itself in this position by no fault of its own, yet it is being described as a maniac, which gets me to my next point.
The two stories I have read have come from papers or news outlets which are certainly no experts when it comes to raptors, nor have they approached any professionals either before writing by the looks of the stories. It is the same old cliche of quick a story, quick click bait and let’s make it sound shocking for people to read.
They say the bird is or has been terrorising people, the bird has savaged people, the owl is a vicious animal. Yes, the bird has attacked, but surely these words are extremely strong without any education back to the reader as to why it is behaving this way in the first place. They also write that the bird cannot be trapped as a license is required. I would disagree with this statement as it is not a native species. There is also nothing stopping the animal from being destroyed other than it is the property of somebody else. This is a problem that has always made me scratch my head. Here we have an animal that is obviously causing an issue having flown down from its perch and hurting a poor lady, but the bird can’t be shot as it belongs to somebody and if destroyed then the owner can claim in a court of law, unbelievable. The best outcome would be for the animal dare I say it to be shot, the owner should then have to cover all costs for the issues and prosecuted for what they have caused. From letting a non-native species out into the wild, not attempting to retrieve it and being charged for the injuries it has caused to the people injured. That should be the story but instead it is turned into ‘let’s blame the animal’, a shock story by poor journalism missing the actual problem that caused the matter in the first place. No legislation!
Here is one article. https://www.leicestermercury.co.uk/residents-terrorised-dive-bombing-owl-8107371
Let’s be honest. None of this should have happened at all. If we had healthy rules and regulations in the first place issues such as this would not happen. It’s bad enough that a non-native species is flying around in the UK, but for people with no knowledge of what they are doing to be able to go and purchase one is simply madness. Yet I see no change in the future what so ever. People often say to me be careful for what you wish for once it is changed there is no way back. Maybe. I for one want to see change. Firstly, for the sake of the animals who are purchased in the first place and secondly because those who sit on these boards debating legislation are so selfish all they think about is themselves. Not the damage to the environment and not the welfare of many birds bred in captivity that end up with a life not worth living. This is without the exploitation that animals are also bred for – another story which I could write a book on.
Banning the keeping of raptors for everyone is not the way forward, but putting in license’ s, training, tighter regulations and making them far more expensive would help the situation greatly. To be able to buy any raptor is not ideal but when you can purchase an Eagle Owl for £150 that can weigh up to 10lbs and kill foxes is madness! In my mind anyway. Getting government to responsibly manage legislation and work with stakeholders properly is crucial to changing a situation that is currently a real mess. I know there are those that will say it was far worse in the 70s and 80s, well that makes me feel no better at all. In the year 2023 should we really be having these discussions? Having said that there is so much more that I could go into but maybe that is best for another day.
Since writing this blog another loose owl has now been seen calling in a mating manner. This is a Eurasian Eagle Owl, Bubo bubo which can be pretty big. This bird is in the North West of England. Let’s hope the press up there come up with a fairer more educational article than others previously.
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Wings Of Wales was established in 2015 by conservation photographer and bird of prey handler Lewis Phillips.
Bird of prey flying team, based in the stunning region of the Brecon Beacons.