If you’ve read this blog before, you’d know that I’m currently studying physics at university. But, when I was little, I wanted to be a zoologist.
I think this stemmed from my love of roaming our bushy backyard, catching lizards and slaters, and lying on the grass and watching the beetles roam over the uneven green carpet. This desire spanned a good ten years and lasted until I was fifteen when I was required to do some work experience. I chose to do this at a birds of prey center at a big park south of Perth, my home city in Western Australia. I was so excited: imagine if I actually got to hold one of those gigantic wedge-tailed eagles? Would I help out in birds shows? I was animal mad and keen to get into it.
It was actually an incredibly fun experience. I got to hold the birds, help out with bird shows, sell tickets and merchandise: I had a right laugh.
But once, when the guy who was looking after me (a lovely South African man who was an experienced falconer back home) was off on a cigarette break, I decided to practice holding the birds. See, because these birds have big, menacing claws that can quite literally impale your arm, we had to wear these thick leather gloves. They have these little rings on them that you use to tie the birds to, using a long piece of string attached to their leg, so they won’t fly off in chase of every sparrow that goes past. Well, I had one of the little kestrels untied from its post and was about to tie it to my glove when… it flew away. Up. Into a tree. Out of reach. This area was open to the world and this raptor could flap away into the bush at any moment.
At first, I panicked; wondering if I should run to find the supervisor. But I had no idea where he was; the bird area was in the middle of a giant grassy space so by the time I left, found him, and got back the bird would quite literally have ‘flown the coop’. Then I had a brainwave. In the bird shows the supervisor used little pieces of raw meat and a whistle to call the birds, which were trained to respond. If I just found some meat I would be home free! After a little fossicking I found two little pieces left over from the last show. I had two chances.
The bird was still high up in the tree, looking at me curiously. I put the meat on the glove and whistled… but no sound came out. I’d recently been fitted with an attractive set of braces and, though I had been able to whistle perfectly well before, I had entirely neglected to re-teach myself after acquiring my new hardware. Spluttering and hyperventilating I eventually made a high pitched noise which the bird recognised as its aural cue and it flew down to the glove.
Snatched the meat.
And flew into another tree.
Now I cannot convey to you the panic I was feeling at this point. This guy had trusted me with the birds. Most of the birds there were hand-reared or rescued and so would have no chance in the wild. I was terrified that I was going to be the death of this little thing.
So, I grabbed the last piece of meat. Looked the bird dead in the eye, and whistled. It flew back down, keen to snatch another tasty morsel. I grabbed the line trailing from the bird’s foot and rushed it, flapping and flailing, over to its perch and tied it down. Success.
When the supervisor came back I said casually, ‘I lost one of the birds, but it’s ok because I got it back and by the way you’re out of meat’. He didn’t bat an eyelid. He was a pretty cool guy.
I also had a semi-blinded wedge-tailed eagle mistake me for its lunch, and I was later attacked by a ravenous kite.
Sound strange? Yes indeed. I came to fully understand the old acting adage of never working with children and animals, and decided that zoology wasn’t for me. Surprisingly, I haven’t developed a fear of enormous birds with razor talons.
It was a fun and eventful week, but I think that much ‘eventful’ in a profession would get quite taxing. I like formulae; they don’t need feeding, they can be difficult to manage but they don’t fly away, and the only way they attack you is mentally.
Physics isn’t easy but, hey, anything else is for the birds.Photo source: taronga.org.au and ndjglobalnews.com respectively. Header sourced from Wikimedia.