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Interesting Facts

Kings of the Air Watched Close Up

Eagles, buzzards, falcons and kites can be admired high up in the sky of Umhausen at the daily bird shows. Female falconer Katharina Girsule is working intensively with 30 rare birds, each one has its own character, at the splendid Birds of Prey Park next to the Ötzi Village. Species-appropriate bird keeping in their natural environment is of utmost importance.

The majestic birds of prey are flying slightly above the spectators’ heads
© Dagmar Gehm

Argus-eyed peregrine falcons

Whoosh! A shadow shoots past the arena right above the visitors’ heads leaving a buzz in the ear. An elementary force on two wings, changing direction so quickly that you can hardly follow the bird with your eyes. Then the peregrine falcon is floating silently for a while, waiting for the perfect thermal lift. An elegant flight soaring high up in the sky.

„The difference is that he can still see us perfectly,“ affirms Katharina Girsule. “No matter how high he flies, a peregrine falcon can make out a pigeon from a distance of more than eight kilometers. Although he can’t perceive every single spectator in the arena.“

Indian feathers are not among the favorites

The 22-year old girl from the Pongau Region in Austria’s Salzburger Land has been working as a falconer at Ötztal’s Bird of Prey Park in Umhausen since its opening in summer 2015. “Birds of prey will never attack human beings. But sometimes the northern raven lady Bonney keeps more distance – for example, if she doesn’t like the color of an umbrella. It’s important to respect these reactions.

And you need to know the bird very well, otherwise it won’t work. Last season there was an Indian Festival here in Ötztal with about 40 people wearing colorful dresses and feathers when they visited the bird show. Some of the birds were quite distracted.“

Female falconer Katharina Girsule © Dagmar Gehm

Between 25 and 30 birds live in the 5000 m² big Ötztal Birds of Prey Park, nestling in the foothills of the Stuiben falls – Tirol’s biggest waterfall – right next to the Ötzi Village. Falcons, eagles, vultures, snow owls, kites and northern ravens feel at ease in the natural surroundings of the Ötztal Alps. Spectacular bird shows are held several times a day.

© Hans-Peter Leiter / Ötztaler Greifvogelpark

Not every day a tasty rabbit is on the menu

But why do the birds always come back if they had the chance to live in freedom every day? This question makes me really curious. Katharina puts a huge smile on her face: “Let me ask you something: why does a cat always come back?“

The answer is clear enough: there is a strong bond with the animal’s caregiver and reference person. In natural surroundings the bird has to hunt, to chase and to kill. A real struggle for life because not every day a tasty rabbit is on the menu. Sometimes, in rainy weather, the birds have nothing to eat except earthworms for entire days.

A BIRDS LUXURY LIFE LIKE IN A 5 STAR HOTEL

Überblick Greifvogelpark - Greifvogelpark
The Birds of Prey Park boasts awesome vistas of the lower valley © Ötztaler Greifvogelpark

Animals in the Birds of Prey Park life like in heaven, similar to a 5 Star Hotel. No hunting, flying freely and fresh meat every day – rats, hamsters, rabbits, quails, pigeons and everything you can imagine but no living prey.

Species-appropriate? “Everything you can watch here also happens in natural surroundings. The birds behave like in the wild. Every flight is for hunting purposes: instead of one long loop flight our birds make several shorter outings per day. And we provide them with food. In general, birds of prey don’t have this killer instinct because they are lazy. If an animal is too heavy and doesn’t fly it won’t get food. No flight, no meat – just like in real nature.”

“You are standing there and waiting”

They always work in teams of two in the arena and both the birds and trainers know exactly what they have to do. One of the falconers gives either a visual signal or knocks once or twice on his leather glove. It also depends on the bird’s behavior high up in the air: an experienced falconer feels if the bird is ready to return by watching his flight and movements.

Sometimes it takes a bit longer. Sometimes you are standing there and just waiting … and still waiting. One of the female steppe eagles didn’t return for an entire night. You can’t force them to come back but if you treat them well they always return.

A birds eye view upon the Birds of Prey Park
© Hans-Peter Leiter / Ötztaler Greifvogelpark
Bird of prey hunting in the water
© Hans-Peter Leiter / Ötztaler Greifvogelpark

Flying like a lawnmower

Not all birds of prey are natural flying artists. Katharina Girsule explains: “Once we had a saker falcon whose flight reminded of a lawnmower – simply not suitable for our outdoor arena. We had to replace the bird and continued our work with Sissi, she was much easier although she almost made a somersault each time she was landing. There are sprinters, marathon flyers, and many other types.”

Katharina Girsule knows that she will work with birds for the rest of her life. A falconer isn’t only responsible for falcons but also for any other bird of prey. Although falconer is not an official profession, Katharina passed the falconry exam at the age of 15. When she was 16 years old, she already received her hunting license.

She attended the Waldorf School in Salzburg and wrote her thesis about species-appropriate bird keeping at Burg Hohenwerfen Castle. She learned a lot about peregrine falcons and their natural habitat, and was attracted by the huge number of interesting facts and figures. She found out that falconry is much more species-appropriate than keeping birds of prey in a zoo where they can’t train their flying skills.

Adaptation phase in the dark room

Patience is the most important prerequisite for future falconers. A young bird gains confidence with a person very slowly. “In the first phase we spend about three or four hours per day together with the young birds in a dark room where they can see only our contours. Slowly a little bit of light is added.“

The training prior to the bird’s first flight show requires between three weeks and three years. Each bird also has a name. And every trainer works with all birds in order to avoid a dependent relationship.

© Hans-Peter Leiter / Ötztaler Greifvogelpark
© Gebhard Schranz / Ötztaler Greifvogelpark

Learning how to fly

Weather conditions and flying skills influence the height of a bird’s fly. If a steppe eagle lady conquers about 3000 to 4000 altitude meters you can’t even see a black dot in the sky. Probably she could even fly much higher but nobody will ever know.

Learning how to fly is just like learning how to walk. It seems very easy but in real life it’s difficult and tough. Every bird needs to develop its own style. Some don’t even want to gain much height, it depends on the character. During training units an experienced bird – for example a 10-year old eagle – makes the first flight while a young griffon vulture watches and follows him.

A snow owl deeply in love

Schneeeule im Landeanflug - Greifvogelpark
Snow owl “Jack Frost” in the landing phase © Hans-Peter Leiter / Ötztaler Greifvogelpark

Both sensitivity and excellent observation skills are needed as well. Entering an aviary, the falconer observes movements and gestures of a bird. If the bird doesn’t feel at ease he must react immediately by stepping back a couple of centimeters or moving his fist differently. It’s a matter of sympathy between bird and falconer.

Last season Jack Frost, a young snow owl, fell deeply in love with Katharina! The bird ignored other falconers even if they had food. A fairly difficult situation because every member of the team should be able to work with the bird during a flight show.

Sparing with physical contact – Relationship tips for loners

Each morning Katharina controls the aviaries. How do the birds feel? Are they happy? Do they behave in a strange way? Are they in a good mood or do they feel sick? Daily weighing is also an important part of the routine program.

Birds of prey don’t appreciate it if you touch them too often or if you stroke them. Some of them tolerate it but they don’t like it. Katharina explains: “Only during mating season they really touch each other. Birds of prey are individual and not gregarious animals. Only once we had a couple that reminded us of Romeo and Juliet – they weren’t able to let their “feathers” away from each other. An absolute exception!”

Falknerin Katharina schickt Greifvogel auf den Weg - Greifvogelpark
The flight starts from Katharina’s outstretched fist
© Hans-Peter Leiter / Ötztaler Greifvogelpark

A maximum of four birds are together in the air. One has already started a nose dive towards the meadow. His stone eagle eyes strongly focus on Katharina’s outstretched fist. Coming back is his very own decision. And he knows it. But he also knows that he can fly freely high up into Ötztal’s sky every day, waiting for the perfect thermal lift. Close to the winds and the sun. Endless freedom amidst a birds of prey paradise.

www.greifvogelpark.at (in German) provides detailed information on opening times, bird shows and admission rates. The Birds of Prey Park is open from 01 May through 26 October 2017.

Cover picture: © Gebhard Schranz / Ötztaler Greifvogelpark

Gastautorin Dagmar Gehm - Winterstart in Hochötz
Gastautorin Dagmar Gehm © Zhengrong Liu

Guest Author – Dagmar Gehm

The renowned journalist and sporty globetrotter from Hamburg has a great passion for the Ötztal and its manifold contrasts and activities:

  • Action – Isolation
  • Thrill of speed – Peace and relaxation
  • Ancient rituals – Trendy hot spots

More blogs by Dagmar Gehm:

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