Pedro stepped lightly onto my gloved hand and stared at me with his deep round eyes, before flapping his wings and taking flight directly towards my head.
I’ve always felt like a bird of prey could be my spirit animal – calm, inscrutable, and nocturnal are quite apt words to describe us both, but whether or not you identify with those characteristics too, there’s no denying that owls are… well, bloody cool.
It’s not everyday you get to catch sight of one of course, let alone be able to hold one in your hand, which is why I arranged a two-hour owl experience at the North Somerset Bird of Prey Centre, a small wildlife sanctuary hidden away on the outskirt of Bristol.
The owl experience
A few printed signs tacked onto an obscure green fence marks the entrance to NSBOPC.
The main centre is closed today, so we’re led straight to the display area behind it, where five birds are perched on stands on a small, grassy field.
Before meeting them, we’re given a quick introductory talk on how to position your hand first – make a gun shape with your fingers, then clench your hand into a fist with your thumb pointing up, which mimics a branch for the bird to stand on. Bend your arm, and make sure to keep your hand positioned higher than your elbow, or else the bird may start to climb up your arm.
With the basics learnt, we’re each given a glove to wear on our left hand before forming a horseshoe shape around the edge of the field. The birds are then introduced to us one by one, and spread out amongst the group.
The first one I got to handle was called Pedro, a naughty but adorable mottled owl with a mischievous look. He perched nicely onto my thumb, but quickly decided he’d rather go for a fly instead. Unfortunately for him though, I was holding onto his tether, meaning he only got as far as flapping his wings by my face!
It didn’t take long for him to settle, but I soon learnt of his next hobby – digging. Don’t be fooled by his petite size, because Pedro has a lot of strength in that little beak. I could feel it each time he picked away at the leather glove by his feet – the only thing separating him from my skin.
The next bird passed to me was called Dotty, a little owl with piercing yellow eyes. She was incredibly calm compared to Pedro, meaning she was open to having a few more strokes on her fluffy chest. Her feathers were so soft, they felt almost silk-like under my finger.
After Dotty came Cherish, a beautiful American barn owl who’s definitely used to being in front of the camera, having made some TV appearances on Channel 5 before. She’s incredibly relaxed, and looked to be dozing off at one point!
Next came Wilbur, an incredibly cute Ural owl. He’s quite a bit bigger in size, but not too heavy once rested on your hand. Turning his head to survey the surroundings, he panted in the midday breeze with the cutest smile on his perfectly framed, feathery face.
If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll have noticed that that’s only four owls out of the five on the field. That’s because we’ve all been building up to meeting the last, but certainly not least, European eagle owl – the beautiful and appropriately named, Hercules.
Weighing in at over 8lbs, Hercules is currently one of the biggest birds at the sanctuary.
I tensed my arms and kept my elbow locked by my side to help support his weight, and watched as his huge, furry talons stepped onto my hand.
With the top of his head meeting mine, he surveyed his surroundings with his head turned away from me. While his body remained completely still, he suddenly spun his head around to face me, my eyes locking with his intimidatingly large, bright orange beads.
Stroking Hercules felt different to the other birds too because of his size. Whereas Cherish and Dotty were so small their plumes felt like silk, Hercules was all feather – still soft under your finger, but you could feel the stiff middle sections of his quill.
Before my arm got too sore, all of the birds were returned to their stands except Cherish, who was about to show us her beautiful flying display.
We lined up on one side of the field with Cherish on the other, and took turns to call out to her. With our gloved hand extended and a piece of raw chicken held up in the other, Cherish would glide gracefully and silently across the field, land on our hand, and take her treat.
It’s amazing to be able to interact with these stunning birds, but experiences like these are also a great way for people to learn more about these animals.
The staff were incredibly knowledgeable about the owls throughout our experience, and shared tons of facts with our group. Did you know that birds in captivity live nearly twice as long as in the wild? Or that the colour of a bird’s eyes will tell you what time of day they hunt? Dark for nighttime, orange for dusk, and light for daytime.
Owl and bird of prey experiences are available to be booked throughout the year, but the centre is also home to a number of other rescued wildlife. You’re only able to meet these on one of the centre’s open days though, of which they’re limited to six each year.
Two weeks after our owl experience, I went back for their last open day of 2016.
NSBOPC Open Day
The gate that was closed on our last visit was hiding dozens of spacious pens inside, with quite an eclectic mix of animals.
From unwanted pets, to rescues from other sanctuaries and more, the NSBOPC tries to give these creatures the best forever home.
Along with the owls we’d previously met, we also got to cuddle a bearded dragon, stroke a royal python, pet Banwell the security dog, meet the centre’s foxes, coatis, marmoset monkeys, and so much more…
There was one member at the centre who I was especially looking forward to meeting – Anakin.
I’m a huge animal lover at heart, and up there as one of my favourite critters of all time is the cheeky raccoon. Their adorable mascot face, people-like hands and chubby bellies just makes me smile instantly.
I could’ve stood and watched Anakin tumbling around and chewing on his orange toy for hours. If you’re reading this NSBOPC, can you also introduce a raccoon experience…?
Need to know
- NSBOPC owl experience costs £45.00 per person and lasts for 2 hours
- Entry to the centre’s open days costs £3.50 for adults, and £2.50 for children (under 4’s are free)
- There are only six open days a year – keep your eyes peeled for 2017 dates!