It had been preying on my mind for weeks: Shouldn’t these owls be sleeping during the day? Would we be keeping them awake for our amusement when they’d naturally be kipping?
And then we meet Lulu, a magnificent Bengal eagle-owl. We’re too gobsmacked by her sheer size and elaborately patterned feathers to worry about whether or not we’ve interrupted her beauty sleep. Besides, it’s 11am and she’s feeling rather chirpy, according to her upright mood feathers, or ‘ear tufts’ – which shouldn’t be mistaken for ears, says her owner, Clare Lott. Owl fact number one.
Size-wise, the southern boobook and the tawny – the most common owls in Australia and England, respectively – aren’t a patch on the exotic Lulu, whose species hails from the Indian subcontinent. The observation is a cue for Clare and Phil Lott, the husband-and-wife team behind Walks With Hawks in England, to imitate the “too-wit/too-woo” courtship duet of tawny owls.
“The female calls ‘Twit!’” laughs Clare.
“And the male answers ‘Who?’” bounces back Phil.
Meanwhile, Lulu, a particularly vocal owl, is hooting what sounds like “No!” to redirect the focus of attention to herself. We’re mesmerised when she rotates her head 270 degrees and then bats her eyes at us with an all-knowing, slow blink.
Having booked an owl encounter online from Australia, we’ve managed to follow our sat nav to a farm outside Cheltenham, in England’s picturesque Cotswolds, to meet with the Lotts and five of their owls. Establishing Walks With Hawks in 2001, the couple runs small-group hawk walks and owl encounters for adults and (larger-than-meal-sized) older children.
Lulu is the first out of the van. I slip my hand into a leather gauntlet and hold my breath. Clare lets the owl free. I try to remain unruffled at the thought of a bird with a one-metre-plus wingspan coming straight for me, hoping that Lulu’s space-time coordinates are as spot-on as our sat nav. It’s the perfect landing. Lulu is surprisingly lighter on my forearm than I’d imagined.
At the other end of the scale is Hibou, a male southern white-faced scops owl measuring just 20 centimetres tall. His name might mean ‘owl’ in French, but looks-wise it’s easy to see why owls are nicknamed ‘cats with wings’. Hibou’s intense gaze is framed by prominent ear tufts that draw your eye to his ‘moustache’ of whisker-like beak feathers.
He’s a wuss, says Clare, transferring the small bird to my glove. “If he flies today, I’ll eat my pants!” she adds, which of course doesn’t happen, as timidly hopping from one glove to the next is more his style. Spooked by the presence of a buzzard in the area, he nervously runs up my arm, seeking refuge in the crook of my neck. An owl encounter doesn’t get more up close and personal than this.
From the outset of our two-hour session it’s obvious that Clare and Phil care about the welfare of their birds. They caution us to be wary of the handful of unscrupulous operators out there – the ones typically asking for donations ‘for conservation’ using their under-stimulated, hollow-eyed owls as a hook.
Clare and Phil hand-rear each owlet in a see-through imprint tank in their lounge room. When outside of the tank, the young owl interacts with the family, including the pet dog. Though the couple’s affection for their owls appears to be reciprocated, Clare sets us straight. “For the owls, it’s all about food. It’s as simple as that,” she says. If you see an owl just sitting around in a tree, she adds, that means it’s had a meal and there’s nothing else for it to do. It’s a good omen (for the owl, not the meal).
Not all owl species are nocturnal, we discover. Owls with yellow irises tend to hunt in the daytime; those with orange irises generally hunt at dawn and dusk; and those with dark irises are usually nocturnal hunters. So if we’re keeping any of these owls from sleeping (not that they seem to mind), it’s the two barn owls: Henry, a soft-faced white owl with dark eyes and delicate wing patterns; and a rare black melanistic barn owl called Oreo (black on the outside, ‘white’ on the inside).
Henry and Oreo are owls after his own heart, Phil jokes, as their ‘selective deafness’ means they can block out sounds in the paddock here while focusing on the sound of a field mouse in a paddock over there. Don’t be fooled by the barn owl’s pretty, heart-shaped facial disc, though. It’s what helps to make it an awesome hunter. The disc channels sounds to the bird’s ears, while serrated wing feathers silently cut through air molecules to enable the owl to take its prey unawares.
Phil temporarily disappears under the wing of a female great grey owl, named Phoebe, to double-check a recently repaired feather. Once we’re given the go-ahead to handle this splendid bird with feathers that resemble medieval chain mail, we quickly realise the regal-looking Phoebe has no table manners. Drops of saliva fall from her delicate beak – it’s all about food – before she wolfs down a piece of raw chicken in one unceremonious gulp.
Despite having a healthy appetite and belonging to one of the largest owl species, Phoebe is surprisingly lightweight. Like most big owls, her plump, duvet-like feathers belie the small body underneath. She’s all fluff and no substance. In more ways than one, it seems.
“Owls are not really wise,” says Clare. “That’s just legend.”
I’m slightly disappointed by that last owl fact, but should it really come as a surprise? A group of owls is, after all, called a parliament.
See more photos from the owl encounter in my Gallery.