Radical Raptors

For the last 6 months in Cape Town, Desmond and I have been avidly tracking sparrowhawks, eagles and buzzards that we spot flying around our mountainsides and our recent trip up the coast offered us an unparalleled opportunity to learn more about these incredible birds through a visit to Radical Raptors. Run by Dennis and Janet, Radical Raptors acts primarily as a rehabilitation center with onsite facilities for the treatment, rehabilitation and release of birds of prey. Adhering to the strict rules, regulations and permits required to own, house and release birds by the Cape Nature Conservation they have a range of enclosures in which to keep the birds and surrounding open environments in which Dennis can fly and train them to assure their continued health. They are also both on 24/7 call to assist or advise with any bird of prey in distress.

However, they are sometimes faced with birds that – for any number of reasons – cannot be released and they subsequently decided to use this as an opportunity to practice conservation through education by facilitating community awareness on what role birds of prey have in the wild, what they are threatened by and what impact humans are having on their survival. 7 years after opening in December 2008, we found ourselves on their doorstep and were greeted at the entrance by Janet who manages and oversees the admin and workings of the center.

Our aim for the day was to attend one of their flying displays which are performed by Dennis, the resident conservationist, falconer and raptor rehabilitator. Three flying displays are performed daily which consist of flying a variety of trained, but non-releasable birds of prey, that are free flown around visitors that have a unique chance to hold, spectate, participate, photograph and interact with these incredible creatures. These flight shows also act as an educational experience in which Dennis discusses how raptors function as parts of biospheres and ecosystems and what threats they are currently facing.

Being at the top of their food chains means that adult raptors have few predators but they are still faced with immense challenges that threaten population numbers. Survival of the fittest has long been natures way of ensuring the continuation of a strong and healthy species and this natural patterning is part of what influences only 25% of raptors surviving their first year and only 12.5% of these adult raptors continue to breed and raise their own young. Human influences however, have drastically reduced the survival rate of these animals to critical levels.

Charlie the Spotted Eagle Owl, followed by Barney the Barn Owl, were the first birds in the flight show and Dennis explained how owls are particularly vulnerable to a range of human threats. Firstly, owls do not build their own nests but rather need to find habitable ares in which to live which means that they are being increasingly forced into smaller spaces as humans require and cultivate more and more wild spaces for their own use. Use of poisons and toxins for killing animals that owls prey on, especially rodents, are another massive threat to an owl’s survival as eating poisoned prey results in the death of the bird. Another issue specific to the South African landscape is that there are many cultural understandings of owls and aside from the threats of farmers and humans who destroy owl habitats, owls are often hunted or killed due to being considered signs of the devil or omens of death. There is hope though and Dennis enthusiastically outlined how building and placing owl boxes in our gardens or surrounding areas and ceasing to use household poisons could foster a recovery of population numbers. Information on how to go about making your own owl box with the free instructions that can be downloaded from the Owl Box Project on their website.

Another central theme to the flight display was Dennis articulating that birds of prey are not mammalian animals inclined to human socialization or relationships with human beings. This means that not only do they make bad pets, but that being owned and raised by humans undermines their ability to survive in the wild and will only have detrimental effects on their ability to function.  The next two birds in the show, namely the Kestrel and the Jackal Buzzard, are now permanent residents at radical raptors due to the fact that they are  “human Imprints”. This term is used when a bird was raised by a human and is now unable to be rehabilitated and released because it will never have the necessary skills and instincts to survive in the wild.

This point is one of the pieces of information that stood out most strongly to Desmond and I. The impact of humans on the environment spans far beyond birds of prey, but Radical Raptors have developed an incredible way in which to demonstrate the impact that humans are having on other species that are forced to share our environments.  Aside from massive habitat destruction through agriculture, climate change and growing population sizes, human made products such as plastics and particularly poisons are some of the biggest factors that are affecting raptors. Radical raptors is therefore managing to do exceptionally valuable work that shows their commitment to the preservation of birds of prey by demonstrating their beauty, skills and place in the ecosystem within the flight shows. Most importantly however, the work that they are doing through their ethos and their approach of this format of interactive display is that they are challenging the human-nature divide and emphasizing the value in an appreciation, understanding and sense of responsibility for wildlife and the environment.

If you would like to read more about Radical Raptors, please visit either their website or Facebook page and if you ever find yourself in their neighborhood I highly recommend taking up the opportunity to visit them, see what they do and watch one of the three daily flight shows that they run.

Please check out the short video we compiled after visiting this incredible center to see some of what we got to see and learn a little more from the individuals who run this organization.

Visiting Radical Raptors


Taken by Jamie Dimitra Ashton and Desmond Bowles

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