Up close and personal with radical birds of prey

SOME people might be downright scared. Others might be mildly curious, but there’s one thing that everyone should feel at least once in their lifetime – the incredible privilege of having a massive vulture walking so close to you that its tail feathers brush over your feet.

That’s what you get to experience, plus the thrill of having other raptors almost brushing your cheek as they fly past you during an educational tour of the Radical Raptors Birds of Prey Rehabilitation and Awareness Centre at The Heath just outside Plettenberg Bay on the road towards Knysna.

Perhaps not as well known as the nearby Birds of Eden and Monkeyland, Radical Raptors is equally worthy of a visit – and more affordable at just R80 per adult with discounts for pensioners and children.

Somewhat surprisingly, the centre has been in operation for four years already, being run jointly with a Cape Town company until two years ago when Dennis Robson and Janet Forrest took full control of operations that see injured birds being rehabilitated and released where possible.

“Some birds are too badly injured and have to be euthanased,” says Janet. “Others can never be released and stay at the centre where they are used for educational purposes.”

When Dennis and Janet met in Botswana, they both knew that their ultimate aim would be to set up a rehab/ educational centre somewhere in South Africa, eventually settling on Plett as The Heath already had a restaurant and craft shop that were pulling visitors to the area.

And while the emphasis at Radical Raptors is mainly on rehab, educating the public also plays a large part in the daily flying displays held at 11am, 1pm and 3pm daily except Mondays.

During these displays Dennis introduces the public to an array of raptors, starting off with George, a yellow-billed kite which “talks” incessantly. “He was hand-reared so he sees all people as his parents and talks to them as he would talk to his parents in the wild,” Dennis explains.

“We can never release him as his affiliation to humans means he could not survive alone.”

George, Barney the barn owl and Charlie the spotted eagle owl are all encouraged to land on the arms of the audience who can feel at one with nature, while at the same time learning why the human species is a very real threat to the raptors’ continuing survival.

“The natural prey of all these birds are mice and rats, but humans use poison to get rid of the latter, little realising that the rodents take up to four days to die. They go out into the fields, become an easy target for birds of prey which are, in turn, also poisoned by their last meal,” Dennis explains.

“Rather go the natural way by luring birds like owls into your garden to kill off rats and mice than resorting to the poisons which are killing off our birds of prey.”

At the Port Elizabeth harbour, for instance, the grass is cut really short around a pole which provides the perfect roosting spot for an owl or kite. “Rodents have to run through the short grass, making an easy snack for the birds of prey. Anyone can do this – or build a nesting box should their garden be large enough,” says Dennis.

And in keeping with the policy of birds come first (all profits made at Radical Raptors are ploughed back into the centre), advice on how to build your own nests to attract owls and or other raptors is available for free on the website at www.radicalraptors. co.za or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ radicalraptors

Apart from the opportunity to get so close to the birds to which we are a real threat, perhaps the highlight of the show is the introduction of a surly vulture, BJ, who scowls and shrieks his way through his introduction to the audience – one of whom rapidly hid her red-painted toe nails feeling that they may be perceived as a tasty snack! As BJ is eventually returned to his cage an amazing hour suddenly comes to an end – but that, as they say, is not all.

After you leave Radical Raptors it is also well worth paying a visit to Illovani furniture where the speciality is making stunning wooden furniture from recycled wine barrels, a craft shop specialising in the work of local artists who make souvenirs from recycled goods, a nursery, a restaurant and a cheese shop with flair.

It’s a one-stop shop that is well worth making if you are in the Knysna/Plett area.

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