Are you sure you want to work with birds of prey?
By Jemima Parry-Jones MBE
I am the CEO of the International Centre for Birds of Prey which is the oldest and one of the largest dedicated birds of prey centres in the world. We lead the world in the captive breeding of birds of prey, we take in upwards of 100 injured wild raptors every year, we work in the field on conservation projects, mainly on vultures at this time in India, Nepal, Bulgaria and Africa. We educate not only our visitors, but work experience students from the UK and abroad, we lecture in schools and universities and have been open to the public now for 48 years.
One of the many questions I am asked by visitors, students and all walks of life, particularly as I am walking up from our flying grounds after having finished a flying demonstration is “how do I get a job like you have”.
There are now an increasing number of zoos, hotels, specialist bird of prey centres, holiday camps and so on that are using birds of prey and sometimes other genera of birds for demonstrations and for experiences in handling and so on. Sadly a high proportion of them are poor to extremely poor with little thought or understanding for the birds in their care and often doing things that are potentially dangerous with the public.
Once visitors have seen staff giving a flying demonstration they can quickly get excited by the idea of working in such a place and (as they believe) constantly playing with living birds of prey and owls. However, the job is nothing like what it seems from the outside. When
volunteers/work experience students contact us to come and work at the centre they are sent a sheet which warns them that 95% of the work is cleaning aviaries, painting the insides of aviaries, clearing paths, helping with the gardens, painting the outside of aviaries and so on. We are out in all types of weather as the birds still require looking after and the public still need to be cared for and have birds flown for them.
Most birds when kept in aviaries are not particularly active or interesting to look at, so the flying demonstrations (note we always use the word demonstration, not show or display), are really what bring the visitors in, and once here grab their attention. If done well, with an
accurate, dynamic and sometimes amusing commentary (but never derogatory about the birds) they can be exciting to watch, cause audiences to gasp on occasion and leave them with an experience that they will take home and share with others. If done badly they will bore the public, give them information that is not only inaccurate but gives a bad impression of birds of prey, and worse encourage the watching public to want to have a bird of their own without any of the information or learning that goes with it.
In terms of a career ladder to climb, I usually warn people that unless they are working in a large zoo which has a career path that can be followed, there is no ladder! I also warn them that not only is the work hard and long hours, but it generally is poorly paid. During the summer months my staff technically work from 8.00am to 5.30pm, however it is common for them still to be here at 7.00pm or even later and if a bird gets lost and we are tracking it with radio telemetry we have been known to be out until 1.30am retrieving a bird. During the winter months, being a nice boss, once it is dark and all the tasks are complete and the birds safely and warmly away, I send them home early, so the winter hours tend to balance out the summer.
They work five days a week, some have to work at the weekends which are our busiest time. We try to make sure that the most experienced staff are working on the busiest days as it is bad practise to have less experienced staff when expecting the highest number of visitors.
All our flying birds are treated as staff, they have time off to moult every year which means aviary space is required for them. This also means you need more birds than the demonstrations require as you need back up. We run three demonstrations per day, flying in the summer months up to 40 birds per day, some of which are flown in groups. We are careful to rest the very small birds, such as Burrowing Owls in the winter as keeping their weight stable in cold weather is tricky, and we fly owls such as Snowy Owls only in cooler months as they do not do well in hot weather. So we balance the birds with the climate, this also means the visitors get to see different birds at different times of the year and the staff get to fly different birds throughout the year, giving them more interest.
Working with birds of prey and the public can be exhausting, repetitive and frustrating, it can also be incredibly rewarding knowing that you are changing opinions and understanding. You will never make money either working in or running a bird of prey centre, but if you love birds of prey, it is a good place to be, and you can make a difference, which in the conservation field is what is needed all over the world. Always check out several bird of prey centres before deciding which one you like – it should be very obvious once you have gone to several.
Find out more about the Centre on the website at www.icbp.org