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    Immature Female Harris' Hawk
    The Mews at Cheshire Waterlife hold most of the birds we fly on a regular basis here at the centre. Our falcons include Lanner, Saker, Peregrine, Peregrine x saker, Peregrine x Lanner, Lugger and of course the kestrel. Hawks are represented by the Harris’ Hawk, Redtail buzzard, Ferruginous hawk and common buzzard although our collection is expanding all the time. We also have a magnificent female Steppe Eagle "Cara" who is currently wowing the crowds during our flying displays.

    Part of the weathering lawn & mews. This photo was taken two years ago - since then a pair of moulting aviaries has been erected behind the chambers shown here.
    As you enter our aviary complex the first birds you meet are indigenous British species. First are the diminutive little owls (Athene noctua) These charming owls are common in several areas throughout Europe, Asia and north africa feeding on a diet of small mammals, insects and even the occasional bird when they have young to feed. Two to seven eggs may be laid with the average being four. These take up to 30 days to hatch. The young are fed in the early stages by the male latterly by both of the parents.

    The little owl was introduced to Britain in the nineteenth century and now ranges throughout much of England and Wales but only a small proportion of Scotland. Other introductions include New Zealand where they have become well established. In the wild this bird is most commonly seen on a perch by roadsides or flitting along hedgerows at dawn or dusk.

    Little Owl
    The Spotted Eagle Owl (Bubo africanus) is a small eagle owl species found in a variety of habitats on the African continent. They can be found in woodland regions to semi desert and even mountainous areas .Its weight is only 25% of the European eagle owl and this is reflected in it’s diet which is composed largely of insects. Although it is very opportunistic - taking prey as diverse as lizards, snakes, scorpions, snails, crabs, frogs - essentially anything it can find!

    Spotted Eagle Owl
    Pairs are formed for life and usually result in 2-4 eggs being laid per year. Incubation lasts 30-32 days and the young can fly at 6-7 weeks. They will not leave their parents for another month or so and still depend on their parents for food although they will learn essential hunting skills so that they can fend for themselves when they eventually leave. The main threat to these owls is through the use of pesticides outlawed in many countries, DDT being the chief offender. It has been suggested that they represent the greatest danger to these otherwise superbly adaptable owls.

    The long eared owl (Asio otus) is a bird of woodland and forest edges. In our aviary complex we exhibit a pair of the Eurasian race, there being three others worldwide. When roosting, this owl is capable of contracting its feathers against its body to form a very thin shape. Coupled with its brown streaked plumage this makes very effective camouflage. When settled the feathers are relaxed and the owl’s form becomes much more rounded. The ear tufts which give this owl species it’s common name have an unclear purpose. They could be involved in signalling or even have a sensory role. They do not however aid in hearing! However, hearing in all owls is exceptionally acute and is used in prey detection. The facial disc of owls formed by the feathers serves to channel sound to the ears. The size and structure of the ears varies between left and right which enables the owl to locate the source of a sound with a high degree of accuracy. This enables an owl to catch prey in total darkness. Long eared owls feed almost exclusively on voles and their numbers are linked directly to breeding success. Up to as many as ten eggs can be laid in a good vole year. Incubation takes 25 -28 days and the young leave the nest at 25 days although they cannot fly for another ten days. This helps avoid detection by predator - an open nest of youngsters being prone to detection by predators.

    Male Snowy Owl
    The next British species is the Tawny Owl (Strix aluco). It ranges throughout Europe and has a patchy distribution in Asia. This is the owl responsible for the much abused call "toowhit toowoo". The male tawny owl is usually the most likely to be making this call as it has a role in defining territories and courting females. The latter call too but with less volume and distinction. Wherever they occur, Tawny owls are relatively common.

    Tawny owls pair for life (pictured right) and tend to occupy the same territory throughout this time. Territory size is linked directly to prey availability. These include voles, mice, roosting birds even moths and beetles. Eggs are laid in clutches of two to six in the U.K. and hatch within a month. A further month later the young leave the nest and begin the search for new territories. This is not an easy task since males will fight to defend a territory. It’s a hard life for these young owls and in many cases a short one.

    Always a favourite with the public is our pair of Snowy owls (Nyctea scandiaca). These beautiful birds are typically inhabitants of the Arctic circle although migrations have taken them as far south as California, France - even Korea and Pakistan! They are occasional visitors to the UK. The male snowy owl is almost pure white with the female showing black bars and flecks across the white background.

    Male (on left) and female Snowy Owl
    The snowy owl possesses striking yellow eyes - possibly an adaptation to the bright conditions of it’s home range. As with so many other owl species brood size is directly proportional to the availability of prey items. In this case the majority of the snowy owl’s diet consists of lemmings but birds such as ptarmigan, ducks and auks will also be taken readily. They are also capable of capturing mammals such as arctic hares and rabbits. When food is abundant up to 16 eggs may be laid. The female incubates them with her large brood patch - this receives a good blood supply to keep the eggs warm and is free from feathers. Being such a large owl the young take up to 50 days to fly and begin to learn to hunt. From then on it will become a nomad - searching the tundras for food in the very short winter days of the arctic.

    The only birds larger than the snowy owls here at Cheshire WaterLife are the pair of European eagle owls (Bubo bubo). The female, Ozzie, weighs almost 4 kilos! Only the occasional bird is found in the UK either as a straggler from the Eurasian population or captive escapees. A variety of habitats is used by these owls from northern coniferous forest to desert. Plumage can vary considerably depending on the range.

    European Eagle Owls
    There is some debate as to whether the races of European eagle owl that exist are actually distinct species in their own right. The Bengal eagle owl would be a good candidate (Bubo bubo bengalensis). Prey species include rabbits, hares, deer, foxes and a variety of birds.

    This species is generally a ground nesting bird the nest itself usually taking the from of a simple "scrape" or depression in the ground. Rarely , they will use the nest of another bird. An absolute maximum of four eggs are laid although all the nestlings from a given clutch seldom survive to adulthood. The male provides all the food for the female for the first month until she can leave the young and hunt herself. Although quite common in Bird of Prey collections - even with private collections this magnificent bird is declining in the wild. It prefers undisturbed countryside and remote areas which are becoming increasingly scarce due to human encroachment.

    Ozzie (on left) and pal
    Peer into this aviary and you will see a pair of stern looking eyes peering back at you. These belong to the Boobook owl (Ninox novaeseelandiae). As it’s Latin name suggests this owl is found in New Zealand as well as Tasmania and small islands around Australia. Many of the island populations are distinct races of which there are at least 15. The Boobook owl appears to be non specialised in terms of habitat and predation. It can inhabit woodland or large open spaces even occupying urban areas .The burrowing owls ( Athene cunicularia ), although small, have big personalities. These are birds of the Americas including some of the Caribbean islands. They have a preference for open land typical of deserts, grasslands, prairies and llanos. They have also colonised areas such as parks, golf courses and airports. The diet is reminiscent of their relatives the little owls consisting of insects, small mammals and the occasional bird.

    Activity is largely concentrated at dawn and dusk but daytime forays are not uncommon.

    Boobook Owl
    Many burrowing owls use the empty burrows of prairie dogs, ground squirrels and badgers preferring those affording good visibility. Widespread campaigns for the eradication of the prairie dog in the U.S. has not helped burrowing owl populations but it's adaptability in colonising new areas should ensure it’s survival in the wild.

    The Malaysian wood owl is a shy bird and can be difficult to spot in the wild. It’s plumage offers superb camouflage in the forested areas it inhabits. It preys on a variety of animals including large birds, insects, mammals and even fish in certain parts of the range. Two eggs are laid in a tree trunk or similar nest but little else is known about the reproductive biology of this species in the wild. It is being bred with increasing frequency in breeding projects in this country and several; institutions around the world .At Cheshire WaterLife a Malaysian Wood Owl features quite heavily in our flying displays. "Marmite" was bred by a local breeder and raised by the falconry team here at the centre. He has a unique character and is much loved by our visitors!

    Malaysian Wood Owl

    One of our most unique owl residents is the free flying Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa). Mistral forms an integral part of our flying displays and is one of only 2 trained Great Grey owls in the country. Its large appearance is afforded by voluminous feathers which hide a quite small body. This is an adaptation to the extreme climate in the areas in whcih it is found. The Great Grey is found in north america and europe occupying the huge coniferous forests typical of the northern reaches of these areas.

    Perhaps the most unique feature of this owl is the huge facial disc which acts like a satellite dish - focusing sound waves to the ears. By contrast the eyes are small, suggesting that this bird relys far more on hearing than sight in prey location. The fact that their volume is greater than their mass is reflected in their prey species. These consist mainly of small, vole sized mammals. In years when voles are scarce the Great Grey may have to range further than it’s usual territory in order to obtain food. Another factor which belies this owls small body weight is the incubation time for the eggs which is only fractionally longer than for the Tawny owl. As long as the great northern forests of North America and Europe remain largely untouched by man this owl should continue to grace them with its presence.

    A new addition to the aviary complex is the lovely White-faced scops owl (above, left).

    This is next to it's somewhat different looking cousin the Indian Scops owl (right).

    Of which this picture portrays one of the pair we have recently acquired. We have high hopes that they will breed in the near future.

    Next to the owls is the first of our hawk species.

    Our first hawks species is the Harris' Hawk. This aviary contains one of the first birds ever trained by a member of staff at Cheshire WaterLife. "Tula" is a mature female Harris' hawk who is currently in a breeding program with "Moose" - a three year old male. Tula was a superb hunting bird over recent years but also retained her very amiable disposition We felt that this was a desirable trait and one we hope will persist in her offspring.

    Falcons at Cheshire WaterLife