Life’s a hoot for Chrissie
I t all began with a barn owl more than 12 years ago. "In hindsight, probably not the easiest way to start," said Chrissie Harper. "It isn't a beginner's bird.' For more than 20 years, Chrissie was a professional dog trainer with German Shepherds, but a serious accident stalled her career. Husband Tom bought her a chinchilla and she turned to breeding and showing these lovable creatures.
Fate played its hand when a fellow breeder invited Chrissie and Tom back to see his own chinchillas. There on a perch sat a barn owl.
"I was entranced," said Chrissie, "and I still am, they are the most beautiful creatures I know."
She was given a barn owl and taught how to care for it. Soon, she was working as a volunteer at the falconry centre at Moreton in Marsh, learning more and more and flying the birds for displays. After several years, she and Tom decided to go it alone and Chrissie's Owls began.
The wild barn owl is an endangered species. As its name suggests, the bird's favourite nesting place is traditional barns and farm buildings. Gradually, these are being knocked down or replaced with modern structures alien to the barn owl, or turned into houses. If an entrance hole to the roof were provided in a barn conversion, the owl would coexist quite happily with the occupants, but that rarely happens.
Owls mate for life and return to the same place every year to mate, so losing their home has a big impact.
Roads offer the greatest threat to barn owls. Large highways will often bisect the habitat of these territorial birds. Worse still, 75 per cent of owls are injured or killed on our roads.
Contrary to popular belief, most owl species, including the barn owl, hunt both night and day, seeking out the short-tailed vole that is their staple diet.
Road verges are good hunting grounds. Even the heavier female barn owl weighs about a pound, so hovering and swooping over verges, they are sucked in by slipstreams and hit by vehicles. Or, the owl sits on the road eating its prey and is mesmerised by headlights.
The stewardship schemes have made life better. Farmers keep hedges tall to prevent the owls swooping low across roads and uncultivated strips and set-aside provide the rough ground for hunting well away from the tarmac.
Chrissie and Tom rescue owls, both wild and captive bred, and display their extensive collection of captive bred owls at shows, schools, the WI, retirement homes, in fact, wherever there is an interest in owls.
There is a very firm dividing line between wild and captive birds, as Chrissie explained.
"We are pretty well known to vets and the RSPCA and so on, so we are often called out to injured owls. Provided the injuries are treatable, we nurse the bird back to health.
"We treat the owl, feed it, but take care to leave it alone so that it remains wild. If an owl becomes domesticised, it can never be released, it just wouldn't survive.
"We don't breed owls, but we rescue captive bred ones," Chrissie added. "Usually because the owner has lost interest. Looking after an owl is a tremendous commitment and once the gloss of initial ownership has worn off, the poor things get neglected.
"Owls raised by humans see those people as their family and they need the attention, the companionship and the comfort. If you ignore an owl, it will become sad and depressed and begin to go back to its wild roots. Sometimes, it's taken us a year or 18 months to restore an owl to normal.' She quotes one instance of an owl now in her collection that was bought for a nine-year-old boy after seeing one of the Harry Potter films. Soon the boy found more interesting' things to do and the poor owl took a back seat.
Any captive bred owl must be ringed and most birds need a passport called an Article 10, proof that it was bred in captivity and that the parents were in lawful captivity. Without an Article 10, Chrissie would not be allowed to display her owls and similarly, sales of birds without an Article 10 are illegal. Strangely, no licence is needed to keep owls and they can be given away with, or without, an Article 10.
The couple have some really good helpers but always need more, attending shows is hard work. The key is to be happy to get your hands dirty.
As is so often the case, money is tight for Chrissie's Owls. The public appearances are used for fund-raising and adopting an owl is extremely popular and quite cheap; many owls retain the same sponsors. The winter months are lean times with no shows to attend.
Blackwells have been very supportive of the venture and the Firs Garage at Hook Norton have donated the graphics on Chrissie's 4X4.
Nonetheless, some corporate sponsorship would be of incalculable help.
"We need a box trailer. Going to events involves two vehicles and that puts up the costs," Chrissie said.
The Harpers' garden houses an eclectic collection of owls - barn, little owl, Ural owl, steppe owl - are some of the breeds. All of them get excited as Chrissie and Tom appear and chatter back when addressed.
Chrissie takes Misty, her favourite barn owl, from her cage and shows me that the heart-shaped face is a radar-dish for sound, channelled into ears of different heights and sizes; an owl can filter background noise as well. It possesses eyesight designed for low light, but primarily hunts by sound.
So vital is the barn owl's face that it has a little comb on the top of one claw to keep things in tip-top condition.
"An owl can hear a mouse's heart-beat 25 feet away and pounce on its prey purely by sound and in complete darkness," Chrissie explained. "God was having a wonderful day when he designed the barn owl."
Chrissie Harper can be contacted on 01993 891618 or visit the website: www.chrissiesowls.com