Friday, March 16, 2018

Alfred II: the Falknerstunde

Any day you get shat on and don't even care...that's a good day.

M and I had our Falknerstunde the other day at the Garuda Falknerei near Stuttgart. I'd arranged this as a birthday present near the end of last year, and we'd randomly selected an afternoon in March, hoping the temperature would at least be reasonable (it was).

This was the latest step in our near-obsession with Steinkäuze and other gorgeous owls, and we'll surely do it again. At the Falknerstunde it was just the Falknerin, M, and me - no other guests - so we had her undivided attention, and she had ours! We learned plenty, some of which I'd read in my various books about owls and new information as well. 

When our hour began, the Falknerin (Vanessa Müller)* asked if we had any specific wishes. Since I didn't want to admit that I would love to spend the entire hour hanging out with her Steinkäuze, I said we are open to everything but very interested in owls. We began, then, with the lovely Schneeeulen (snowy owls).

*The link to this TV program about her might not work for you if you're not in Germany.
Bijuu, the Schneeeule
Vanessa told us about the calls owls make - their conversational call, their begging for food sound, the beak clacking they do when they're annoyed, the call they make when they're threatened, and their mating call. We heard all but the last two. The owls are very conversational since they are used to humans, and she said they can chat all day long. I found the sound beautiful.

You can't hear the sound she's making, but this is her body language
when she's begging for food.
We learned that owls with black eyes hunt at night, owls with orange eyes hunt in the twilight, and owls with yellow eyes hunt usually in the daylight. Schneeeulen and Steinkäuze have a unique hunting technique: they sit on a low or medium-height branch of a tree and wait. Flying takes great effort, and since they are not particularly fast, they can actually be in danger from eagles and other large and faster Greifvögel (birds of prey). So they wait, watch, and listen, and when a poor little mouse scrambles by, the owl drops down and nabs her warm and tasty snack.

Baldur, being rewarded for putting up with our visit
Hunting was not on the plan for the hour, so Vanessa brought out a box o' chicks (dead day-old male chicks, still fluffy and cute but...ex chicks). I'd post the photo I took, but I had to promise my daughter I wouldn't. It's really nothing more than tough life. Farmers kill newborn male chicks because they need egg-laying hens and not a barnyard full of future roosters, and so the chicks are used to feed and train birds of prey. It's a good deal for the farmer, the Falknerin, and the Greifvögel. Just not for the chicks.
Joschi in the cold at the Weihnachtsmarkt (Dec. 2017).
After we left the Schneeeulen in peace, Vanessa fetched the adorable Steinkäuze, Joschi and Marie. We'd met Joschi at the Weihnachtsmarkt in Horb a few months ago, but he looked slimmer now. It was warmer, so probably he was just less hunched up. Or maybe he was trying to impress Marie with his slim, trim, buff figure by standing up a little straighter - but then we learned that she is his sister. Vanessa handed Marie to me, which is when I learned what the annoyed beak-clacking sounds like. She'd been cuddled up in her barn home, and because of our unfortunate arrival, she had to be extracted and paraded around in the cold. She was less than pleased and made sure I knew it. I also didn't have any Eintagsküken to offer her, so basically I was useless to her. So she shat on me. I can't really blame her.

Right about the same time, her brother, who'd been making pleasant conversation with M and Vanessa when he wasn't trying to flutter up to M's shoulder while tethered to his wrist, shat on his camera. Anyone who gets unnerved by such things probably shouldn't spend time around wild or semi-wild animals. Getting to hold and stroke a grumpy Steinkauz is totally worth a little owl poo.

Notice his orange eyes - when does he hunt?
After Vanessa returned Joschi and Marie to their comfy quarters, she brought out her Uhu, Tweety. Based on comments on her Facebook page, he's quite a star. He allowed himself to be tempted by the leg and thigh of an Eintagsküken, and flew from one post to another several times. We learned that the owls and birds prefer to fly against the wind, because a tail wind pushes down on them and requires more effort to fly where they wish to go. Tweety occasionally made it clear that he wasn't exactly enthused about the exercise, but he cooperated. Despite his diminutive name, Tweety is very impressive.

After Tweety came the Harris Hawks, Jake and Merlin. They are allowed to fly free (as is Tweety; the Steinkäuze prefer not to fly anyway, and would be in danger from the wild buzzards, hawks, and magpies flying about), and during demonstrations they swoop close to the heads of onlookers, judging exactly how close they can get to both stay safe and uninjured, and freak out the guests. We took these two chaps on walkabout down the road and back (Gassi gehen mit Vögeln) while they flew from post to tree to cornice, keeping their eyes on Vanessa the whole time. She explained that in the world of falconry, we humans were playing the part of trackers. When we see our prey (a plump rabbit, for instance), the hawks need to be nearby and alert to go get the wee beast. If they're off sight-seeing, miss our cue, and the rabbit gets away, that would be very embarrassing (for the hawk). So they stay close and wait for cues. Now and then she called them back for an Eintagskükenkeule, which they seemed to appreciate.

Jake (or Merlin?)
It is clear how much Vanessa cares for her birds and owls, and vice versa. She talks passionately about them, seems to enjoy sharing what she knows, and expertly guides bumbling newcomers like us in how we must position ourselves, how to offer the tasty treats, and what not to do around them. For instance, they are far-sighted and don't see well what is right in front of them. So if you hold out a finger near their chest area or make an attempt to pet their soft chest feathers, "you'll probably get your finger back, but it will not look the same as it once did." If they think your finger is food, they will treat it as such.

There are many Falknereien in Germany, and during the warmer months they do demonstrations of their beautiful birds and owls at various festivals and castles. We've seen shows at Hohenneuffen, Hohenzollern, and Hohennagold, as well as at the Weihnachtsmärkte in Horb and Esslingen.  I highly recommend going to a show (and leaving a donation if the Eintritt is free), though we really liked the one-on-one learning at the Falknerstunde. The Garuda Falknerei has a Tag der offenen Tür (an open house) on May 1st every year, and we are determined to go this year.

I would guess there are falconries in the US as well, but it was not something I had any exposure to and I didn't find much when I googled falconries in Wisconsin. There's a falconers association, but that's for specialists and falconers, not for demonstrations for the general public. In Germany all you need to do to find the nearest Falknerei is google your town or city name and add "Falknerei." That's how I found Vanessa.

For more on my obsession with interest in Steinkäuze, see my first post about Alfred.
Just as an update, Alfred's Steinkauzhaus has been built. More on that another time.


  1. If you evergo to the UK I recommend going to the Bird of Prey sanctuary near Andover
    They have lots of owls - plus other birds of prey too. There is an owl flying display.

    1. Oh, excellent! I just read your post and had a peek at their website. When we go to the UK, we head straight for Scotland - but this looks and sounds like a great place to visit! Love your scarf, and I definitely would have bought it, too. :-)

  2. I have been fascinated by falconry skills since seeing them demonstrated at a medieval-experience chain restaurant in Los Angeles many years ago. When I read this post last spring, it was the inspiration to attend a half-day Falknertag at Garuda several months later. Having the bald eagle "Montana" fly to my gloved fist was a peak moment of the year. Knowing our German language skills were weak, our Falknerin offered to translate any comments to English. She also brought a fluent-English-speaker staff member to us, to make sure we understood how to handle the birds and what to avoid. My husband and I had a wonderful time and plan a full-day experience after we complete the B2 language coursework.