The golden, wheat filled horizon stretched out in both directions as far as my eyes could see. The horizon line blurred at the ends as I squinted my eyes trying to take in such a vast landscape. It was a never-ending horizon, perfectly flat; when I stare at it I see a world of possibilities ahead of me, and with possibilities comes freedom.
It’s not often in life we get to take in the landscape of freedom. In fact much of our lives we follow a well-worn path through adulthood that looks and feels nothing like freedom. We get caught up following the paths of others; mainly because it’s just easier that way. Going off path is hard, it’s what I’ve been doing my entire life. I have the utmost respect for people who take a left when they are supposed to go right. I find when people break free from the norms they do something extraordinary. That’s what Colin Weir did – he broke free in order to provide freedom to others – others with wings.
Realizing Your Calling
Colin grew up in Ontario watching Jack Miner, considered the father of North American Conservatism, start the first ever bird banding in the region. Colin visited Miner’s goose sanctuary in Ontario as a little boy which kicked off the beginning of a lifelong passion. Colin laughs as he tells us the story of moving from his life of accounting to a life of falconry, “I told my dad I was quitting my job at the accounting firm, going to England to falconry school, and coming back to start a wildlife rescue center,” Colin pauses for a moment, “I might as well have said I was going to run off and join the circus – to him I was throwing away my university education.”
We all laugh, but in my laughter I remember similar conversations with my father – when I told him I wasn’t going to be an engineer. When I told him I was quitting my first job to be a consultant. When I told him I was going to quit my IT career and go travel for a year around the world. When I told him I was going to be nomadic. I’m pretty sure my dad is used to (and hopefully trusts) my shocking decisions by now, but it wasn’t easy at first. I immediately related to Colin as he told us his story; going against the system and family norms is never easy. But when it works out, it’s the most rewarding thing. Risk and reward go together for a reason.
Starting the Alberta Birds of Prey Center
When Colin discovered falconry he knew he wanted to help injured birds go back to the wild and put all of his time and energy towards this goal. He and his partner opened the Alberta Birds of Prey Center in 1982, and the building and visitor center opened in the early 90’s.
They care for the injured birds year around, educate the public as an environmental learning facility, act as an eco tourism attraction, and travel around Alberta to various special events for conservation presentations with their live birds. Many of the trained birds are even used in movies or films!
This is not a government-funded facility. It’s completely donations sponsored and it costs about $1000 a day to keep the doors open. Without any government subsidies, they operate on donations. It’s a good thing some of these birds are actors, they help with funding ultimately!
How do the Birds Get There?
I learn how hard a bird’s life is when we ask how the birds get here. Many birds fall out of nests too young to take care of themselves. Occasionally lawnmowers are running over them or farmers run over them with tractors. Some have been shot. Surprisingly many of these big birds are hit by cars. The birds perch on roadside fence posts searching for prey in ditches. Ditches are like a buffet for birds, they collect a lot of moisture and attract rodents. When eagles lock on to their prey in the ditch and their eyes are laser guided to that prey, they don’t see the cars coming.
Because the center is well known in Southern Alberta, locals bring in injured birds all the time. Colin tells us the recent story of a big husky 300-pound farmer who came into the center cradling a little family of owls in his hands. He was very emotional. “I accidentally ran over this nest in the field and I feel terrible. I brought them in to you because I took a tour here when I was in Grade 1 twenty years ago.”
Why You’ll Want to Visit the Center
The horned owl stared at me with his yellow eyes. We stood there locked in a gaze for a while trying to figure each other out. And then he turned away following a slight noise in the distance. I let my breath out that I had been nervously holding, relieved that he didn’t peck my eyeballs out! The experience wasn’t behind bars, in fact I was actually holding this massive owl on my arm, taking selfies with it as it danced and bobbed on my gloved forearm.
And that’s one of the reasons why you come to the Alberta Birds of Prey Center, to get an close-up experience like no other with these beautiful birds.
When people normally go to a big zoological facility it’s more of a spectator experience, but at the Birds of Prey Center they like to give you a hands-on intimate experience. But it’s not only about a cool close-up selfies; it’s about education and conservation wrapped up in a fun experience.
“People don’t want to be lectured to or feel like they are in a classroom. They want an experience – I call it conversational conservation. Where we are just talking and can integrate factoids but also let people know what we are doing to help the birds, what they can do to help us, and what they can do when they leave in their own backyard. That way it’s more engaging, interactive and inspiring for people.” –Colin
The public can come in and get a very up close experience to the wildlife of western Canada. They can also feed baby hawks, pet an eagle, release hawks back to wild, and even give an eagle a shower!
“There aren’t many places in the world where you can reach out and touch an eagle. It’s a very special experience,” Colin says with pride.
A Birds of Prey Walk-thru
We did the whole hands-on circuit with Colin and his team of volunteers. Not only did I hold a big horned owl, but I first started small and worked my way up like Russian stacking dolls; cute little burrowing owls, soft barn owls, and then the yellow eyed horned owl. This was my favorite experience at the Center; it’s so unique to get this close to these animals, feel their weight, and softness of their feathers.
When we walked into the eagle area I was stunned, they were huge. Sure, I know eagles are big birds, but I had never been that close to one before; they are size of a small toddler!
The big eagles seemed pretty happy on their perches, and they seemed especially happy to fly for us. Colin showed us how to hold them and did flying demonstrations out in the open.
After a bit of flying exercise the eagles get a special cool down…a shower. I showered my eagle with a little garden hose as it flitted around in a shallow pan of water. I never thought I’d see an eagle bird bath in my life, nor be involved in hosing one down!
The center has about 200 birds currently. All of the birds who are injured and deemed non-releaseable are used at the center for up close experiences like ours. However the majority of birds are being cared for and rehabbed out of sight to be eventually released back to the wild.
This doesn’t happen every day, but during our visit we did have a special treat; we witnessed 3 hawks being released. These were hawks that had been nesting in trees, the trees came down, and people found the nests and brought them to the center when they were young. When they were brought in, they were the size of an orange. They had been in rehab for about 90 days and had grown to full size ready to take back off into the wild.
They hawks were brought out into a field in a little box on an ATV. Colin showed Tom how to hold it and release it. As I backed up and got ready to take a picture of this momentous event, I got a little choked up.
I watched as the bird struggled a bit in Tom’s grasp but then suddenly he pushed it forward and the bird spread it’s wings and soared. After it was released, I put down my camera and watched as it soared up into the air, circled around us, and landed in a tree nearby. I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through its head.
Freedom. I think it’s a word that resonates with all humans, and likely birds too. That moment when you realize you are in control of your destiny and live your life as you want.
The hawk sat for a moment in the tree as if he was testing this idea of freedom, was it real? He was trying to figure out if he could really fly anywhere; no more rehab, no cages, no more limits. Then he spread his big wings and flew off. I watched him until I the little black dot disappeared into the blue sky.
Not only did my morning at the Alberta Birds of Prey Center educate me on various birds and give me a chance to experience them in an incredibly close, hands-on environment, but it also reminded me how precious freedom is. The freedom to choose a profession you have passion for even though it might not be the most sensible isn’t always available to people. We all wish we had the freedom to ‘fly’, but the people who figure out how they can – well – they are the lucky ones.
How you can visit and donate to the Alberta Birds of Prey Center
The Alberta Birds of Prey Center is Canada’s largest birds of prey facility. Situated on a 70-acre wetland area site the center is a celebration of nature featuring the hawks, falcons, eagles and owls of Alberta. Alberta Birds of Prey Website
Visiting: Open for tourists/visitors May 10 to Sept. 10 and after that by appointment. But still around every day for calls on injured birds. Entry Fees $6 to $12
You can also donate or sponsor a bird – a unique Christmas present for sure! Burrowing Owl, or Falcon is $50, – Barn Owl, Hawks $75, Great horned owl is $100, Eagles are $200.
I was a guest of the Canadian Badlands on this experience, however all opinions expressed here are my own.