Our National Bird of Prey Hospital does some really fantastic work rehabilitating injured birds. Unfortunately, this isn't something we can easily show visitors, as it is important that these wild birds have minimal contact with humans prior to their release back to the wild. However, we can give you a bit of an insight into the work of the hospital, as it truly is fascinating.
During the spring we often receive a lot of chicks, and releasing them back to the wild isn't quite as straight-forward as releasing adult birds. This is because when they are brought to us many are so young that their parents have often not even finished rearing them! When chicks are brought in, they will be treated for any injuries they have and then the rehabilitation and release process will start. The process of releasing birds varies depending on the species as different methods are required to maximise survival prospects for different birds.
Each summer the Tawny Owl chicks we receive are returned to the wild. Tawny Owls are resilient and adaptable birds, which means that once released we do not need to provide post-release support. This is known as a hard release, and our conservation and research team has shown that Tawny Owls released this way survive as well as birds fledged in the wild.
Conversely, we have released Sparrowhawk chicks after a stay in the hospital in what is known as a soft release. Sparrowhawk chicks are placed in a constructed nest in a tree, sometimes at the bottom of our meadow. This is done before the birds are fledged. Food is delivered daily to the nest site so that the chick does not see humans providing the food. In the wild, Sparrowhawks will feed their well-developed chicks by simply dropping food into the nest, and this method allows us to replicate this behaviour until the chick is able to fly, hunt and fend for itself. We use the same techniques for releasing Buzzard chicks.
The release of some chicks is more complex, because there is usually a degree of continued parental care after the chicks fledge from the nest. We once admitted a juvenile Peregrine Falcon with a broken beak to the hospital. Treatment to repair the beak was lengthy and we had to keep the chick with us until it had regrown completely. Once this happened the bird was on the path to being released. However, it still needed to learn how to hunt. Cases like these are usually transferred to a specialist who will train the bird to hunt using falconry techniques. In the wild, breeding Peregrine Falcons will teach their young to hunt by actively demonstrating techniques whilst the juveniles observe. The young are encouraged to hunt by the parents, who will drop prey in mid-air in front of the chicks. Peregrines are one of the few raptor species where hunting is a learnt behaviour rather than instinctive.