Expect to find yourself charmed by a raptor before you’ve even paid the price of admission at the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation. In case the eye contact from an owl doesn’t tip you off: this is no glass-walled aviary. This is a place for getting touchy-feely with a new feathered friend. Maybe it’ll be Bruce Wayne, a juvenile short-eared owl, grooming himself on a perch near the cash register, unaware the feathers on his face look curiously like a bat symbol.
The Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation in Coaldale is home to owls, hawks, falcons and eagles who need a bit of R and R. Depending on their injuries, not all of them will ever be ready to go back out into the wilderness. Some get to stay here in the five-star hotel of wildlife facilities, says managing director Colin Weir. “They get the very best food, good exercise, a safe and secure environment and at the end of every day they get showered down by servants,” Weir says, only half joking.
Weir started the rescue operation in 1982. Today it’s a charity and a beloved Canadian Badlands destination. “I’m just a little more passionate and obsessive than a lot of people,” says Weir, an accountant by trade. Weir leads a life where he might be down on all fours cleaning up bird droppings one day and introducing a golden eagle to royalty the next. Whatever the day brings, he’s living his dream.
Wildlife are not pets and you can never turn them into pets.Colin Weir, managing director, Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation
The eco-tourism site is a super rare opportunity to interact with Alberta’s native birds of prey. Holding a relaxed owl, its talons tight around your hand is a major highlight (and it comes standard with admission).
Basil, a diminutive burrowing owl, is a pro when it comes to selfies with humans. Basil is “so reliable you could rub noses with him,” says Weir. Gordon, a much heftier great horned owl, has the kind of look behind his feathered eyelids that makes it clear he’s a little too cool to be here, but he’ll tolerate the tittering of the captivated bipeds who hold him.
Depending on the bird being held and its disposition, Weir and his staff will encourage some touching of the feathers. But Weir is unambiguous: you don’t pet an owl. You touch it.
“You can learn how soft they are from the texture of them,” he says. “They don’t necessarily like petting the way our pets do at home.”
And don’t get any ideas about bringing an owl home to start your own Hogwarts-inspired owlery.
“Wildlife are not pets and you can never turn them into pets,” Weir says, while acknowledging it’s hard not to feel a bond with a bird he’s trained. Falconry is part of what inspired him to start the foundation. Today, falconry is an important part of their rehabilitation efforts. Falconry depends on the birds getting a little hungry so that they respond to food from their trainers. Training is at the core of another highlight onsite: flying.
“I love flying the red-tailed hawks,” says Carmen Avramovic, a wildlife technician. “They’re funny. They all have little personalities.”
Avramovic, a renewable resource management student when she’s not working her summer job with the birds of prey, was driven to work at the foundation the moment after she first held an owl there.
On this particular day, she’s flying Lincoln, a 21-year-old bald eagle. His species are “majestic scavengers,” Avramovic explains to the visitors watching. He propels his formidable seven-pound frame from Avramovic's gloved hand across a prairie field to where her colleague is holding a scrap of raw chicken. His gliding isn’t as effortless as it looks. A few laps like this and his beak is open, a little avian tongue poking out. He’s tuckered out. Flying is hard work, Avramovic explains, like running is for us.
The crowd is transfixed as Lincoln lands on Avramovic again to gulp down another piece of meat. It’s those moments of awe that convinced Avramovic to shift her studies more toward birds and it’s what keeps Weir feeding his avian obsession for the public’s education.
Avramovic tries to find the right words to describe holding an owl for the first time. It’s a struggle. “You can’t really tell people anything,” she decides. “You have to show them.” At the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre, that’s all in a day’s visit.