Getting The Duke, a Turkmanian Eagle Owl, to eat out of your hand doesn’t require nerves of steel — but they help.


fermin de souza/metro toronto

Dalhousie Castle’s falconer Denise Dolman demonstrates how friendly owls like Navajo, a Great Grey Owl, can be.

fermin de souza/metro toronto

The medieval Dalhousie Castle forms a fitting backdrop to learning about falconry.

At two arm lengths and behind a wire mesh, The Duke is an impressive example of a Turkmanian Eagle Owl, one of the largest species of owls in the world.

Less than a foot from your face, this five-pound bird is intimidating. All you can focus on is a wickedly hooked beak, unblinking eyes and scythe-like talons gripping your gloved hand. It doesn’t help to be told those talons can crush prey with 200 pounds of pressure per square inch. And prey goes up to a fox or small deer.

However, Denise Dolman, the falconer at the fascinating Dalhousie Castle hotel about 13 km from Edinburgh, Scotland, assures us Duke is a surprisingly gentle bird despite his John Wayne swagger that earned him his name when he was a baby.

“They (the owls) see people as their friends and a source of food so they have absolutely no reason to harm them,” Dolman says.

In fact, the owls are brought out for those who are not quite comfortable with the speed of the smaller Harris’ Hawk, one of the 40 birds of prey kept in the falconry. The owl tends to come in slower and lands more gently on your arm.

Flying the Duke, or the smaller hawk, Mylo, is amazingly easy even if the closest you’ve been to a bird is at the park. The handler gives you a brief lesson in how to stand (left shoulder pointing at the bird) and hold your arm (gloved left hand straight out, hand into a fist) and before you realize it, there’s a bird of prey sitting on your arm.

Originally, falconry — which is believed to have originated in the Far East 4,000 years ago — was a means of bringing food to the table where people would capture a bird, train it and take it out hunting, Dolman explains. That changed in medieval Scotland to become the sport of kings until the invention of the gun led to its gradual decline as a recreational sport. Places like Dalhousie Castle, which was turned into a hotel in 1972, have revived the sport as an added attraction.

“Falconry is more visible to the public now with a lot more falconry shows and falconry centres. But very few places will actually let you put the glove on and let you get up close to the birds,” Dolman says.

Among the more interesting offerings at Dalhousie is the owl ring delivery where an owl brings the wedding rings to the best man during the service in the 13th century castle’s chapel or on the quarterdeck.

“There are not very many places left where you can get hands on with the birds,” says Dolman.

“We do offer hunting packages but the vast majority of our activities are just flying the birds.”

Hunting days in the wild run from October to April and cost about 95 pounds for five hours. Most people, however, want hands on non-hunting packages where they can put the glove on and fly the birds instead of just watching them, says Dolman.

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