The Scottish Owl Centre
I made my first visit to the Scottish Owl Centre recently. It`s conveniently situated just off the M8 Motorway halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow within the grounds of Polkemmet Country Park. With over 150 birds from over 40 species the centre houses the largest collection of owls in the world. The country park was developed on the estate of Polkemmet House, a mansion demolished in the 1960s. During the Second World War, Polkemmet House was requisitioned, and used both as a war hospital and accommodation for Polish soldiers who had fled their country to fight for Britain against the Nazis.
Following the war, the mansion became a school, run by the Girl Guides movement. It was officially opened as the Trefoil School on 25 September 1945 by Princess Elizabeth (now the HM the Queen), who later became the school's patron. In 1951 the school moved to a new location outside Edinburgh and thereafter Polkemmet House was used by the Scottish Police College until 1960, when the college moved to Tulliallan Castle in Fife. The house and estate were then sold to the National Coal Board (NCB), who operated extensive opencast mines in the surrounding area.
Only a small selection of the owls in the collection are shown here.
Unlike many bird of prey centres, the Owl Centre`s flying area is indoors which means that seeing the birds in action is not weather dependant. However, as only certain birds are trained to put on a show, if these individuals get soaked in a shower while in their aviaries, substitutes may have to be brought in at short notice.
Thanks to the falconers` efforts, the birds quickly get used to performing in front of an audience. Don`t be surprised if one lands beside you, or even lands on you head! The individual species chosen to be flown each day depends on a number of factors including the season. For example, birds such as the Snowy Owl only get the chance to perform during the colder months as they would be far more active in winter in the wild. A Barn Owl is pictured on the left.
The woodland frieze along each of the long walls helps to create the illusion that the birds are flying in the open air.
There are some fantastic and unusual birds here and the staff are not only very knowledgeable but passionate about their charges
Dug, the Burrowing Owl, was the star of the show on my first visit. These are small, long-legged owls found throughout open landscapes of North and South America. Burrowing Owls can be found in grasslands, agricultural areas and deserts, or any other open dry area with low vegetation. They nest and roost in burrows, such as those excavated by prairie dogs, but unlike most owls, they are often active during the day. Burrowing Owls, however, prefer to hunt from dusk until dawn, when they can use their night vision and hearing to their advantage. Living in open grasslands as opposed to forests, the species has developed longer legs that enable it to sprint, as well as fly, when hunting. This wee guy definitely preferred to keep his feet on the ground.
Burrowing Owls range from the southern portions of the western Canadian provinces, through southern Mexico and western Central America. They are also found in Florida and many Caribbean islands. In South America, they are patchy in the northwest and through the Andes, but widely distributed from southern Brazil to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Although Burrowing Owls are year-round residents in most of their ranges, birds that breed in Canada and the northern U.S. usually migrate south to the warmer climes of Mexico and the southern U.S. for the winter months. When threatened, the owl retreats to its burrow and produces rattling and hissing sounds similar to those of a rattlesnake, the birds` arch enemy, to deter intruders. This species can live for over 10 years in captivity and at least 9 years in the wild, however, they are often killed by vehicles when crossing roads. And it`s not just snakes they need to watch out for - their many natural enemies include badgers and coyotes. They are also frequently killed by both feral and domestic cats and dogs.
Dug is still a youngster and like many kids when they`re having fun, is reluctant to stop playing and head indoors. The Owl Centre staff have found that some tasty morsels placed inside his carry cage work a treat at the end of his display...
The only non-owl species I saw were these Kookaburras (above), which are actually terrestrial tree kingfishers.
This wee guy would be very hard to spot perched on a dead tree in the wild - unless he opened his eyes!
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