I buried my nose in the feathers of a Eurasian Eagle Owl! We spent a fascinating morning at the Dubrava Falconry Centre in a thick pine forest just outside of Sibenik, Croatia. Here Emillio Mendusic and his staff rehabilitate injured birds of prey, breed birds of prey, and train birds to do demonstrations in order to educate the public about birds of prey. They have treated hundreds of injured birds and been able to save almost 80% of them. Whenever someone calls the emergency number in Croatia to report an injured bird of prey the operators immediately refer them to the Falconry Centre to see if they can help.
Emillo who started the Falconry Centre was busy doing a demonstration for a big group of junior high students so the four of us were left in the hands of another falconer Stipe who has worked at the centre for eleven years and absolutely loves his job. He taught us so much. 70% of an owl’s head is her eyes and she can turn her head 270 degrees. She can spot a small rodent up to 8 km away. Stipe told us most Eurasian Eagle owls mate for life and for the first 24 weeks of their babies’ lives males and females look after their offspring together.
If you try to pet an owl with your hand it will feel threatened but you can rub your face in its soft feathers and it won’t mind. Stipe did say that each owl has its own temperament and might not like people approaching at all but Stipe knows Mordecai well and he doesn’t mind.
Stipe told us they maintain a huge bank of feathers at the rehabilitation centre all labelled and catalogued. They collect these feathers when the birds moult. When a new bird is brought to them that is injured and has lost key feathers it needs to fly, the veterinarians who work at the centre are able to take a matching feather from the feather bank and insert it in the empty hole in the bird’s wing structure with super glue and then the bird is able to fly. Stipe gave Mordecai a little chick to eat but she wasn’t very hungry. He said owls like Mordecai are killing machines and although they mostly eat small prey like mice and rats and other birds they will also eat bigger animals like young deer, antelope, goats and hedgehogs. Stipe told us the owls only eat fresh meat but if they kill a larger animal they will eat as much of it as they can and then leave the carcass and come back later to hunt the animals who come to feed on the carrion. The talons of a Eurasian Eagle Owl are the largest of almost any nocturnal raptor and provide one of the strongest grips ever measured in a bird.
Next Stipe introduced us to a Harris’s Hawk named Becks. He and Stipe are good friends and often go hunting together with Stipe’s dog. If Stipe unties Becks he still follows right after Stipe. Stipe handmade the glove I am wearing to use when he trains the birds and does demonstrations with them. The female Harris’ hawk is about 35% bigger than the male. Stipe also told us that in medieval times women were excellent falconers.
Stipe says that the educational piece of their rehabilitation centre is so important. They try to have as many student guests as possible. They think the future of the animal and bird species in our world is in the hands of young people and they want them to know just how special and unique birds of prey are. Stip talked about how much humans have to learn from birds. Zippers were modelled after a bird’s feathers. Birds can tell environmentalists a great deal about pollution levels. Birds tolerance for certain otherwise harmful microorganisms can help scientists develop medicines. The inventors of planes studied birds. Stipe wants all young people to become Greta Thunberg’s- passionate about saving the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it. He described her as a new Don Quixote tilting at windmills and hopes the young people who visit their centre will be similarly inspired to save animal and bird species. There were many different birds of prey at the Dubrava Falconry Centre like this beautiful peregrine falcon Dave photographed. Our time at the centre was fascinating and certainly a highlight of our visit to Croatia so far.