The Maltese are passionate about two things: fireworks and shooting birds. Walk between any two villages and you’re sure to suddenly hear BANG-BANG-BANG! In fact, many species of birds are in danger of disappearing from the five islands that compose the country. But things are changing and some Maltese are starting to protect its avian citizens.
Earlier this week we had the opportunity to visit the fantastic Malta Falconry Centre. The centre exists both to protect birds of prey and also to educate people on how to care for them. It makes sense that wildlife conservation in Malta would start with falcons. The islands used to have an abundance of falcons and, in fact, when the Holy Roman Emperor granted Malta to the Knights of St John in 1530, the price was one of these revered falcons per year.
The first thing that happens every morning at the centre is weighing in. Birds of prey are very sensitive to how much they weigh – too high and they won’t fly, too low and they are hard to train (it’s hard to listen when you’re too hungry).
The centre has not just falcons but many different kinds of birds of prey.
We had the pleasure of taking an owl out to fly. The birds at the centre are exceptionally well trained and will fly from one person to another, hoping for a little piece of chicken or quail. It’s an amazing feeling when an owl swoops down and lands right on your outstretched hand. Even more exciting when it spreads its wings and takes to the air.
During our day at the centre we worked with a young hawk who had just arrived a week before. He was just learning to land on a human’s hand. After a few false starts, we got him to fly on command. Other than the trainer, I’m the first person he’s ever landed on! Having the distraction of more people around and still being able to fly on command was a great step forward for this little bird.
In a perfect world, all of the birds in the centre would be free. Unfortunately, the reality is that many of them wouldn’t make it, either because they were born in captivity and don’t know how to survive in the wild or because they would get shot. The centre is serving an important role in educating people not to shoot them and, for those who adopt a bird, how to train and care for them. A well-trained bird is a safe bird. When they know to trust you, you can let them fly and know they’ll come back.
We really enjoyed our time at the centre and felt a connection to these special little creatures.