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wildlife

Spock, a Great Horned Owl native to the Americas, flies down from a perch at the Pacific Northwest Raptors Centre in the Cowichan Valley.

Gillian Radcliffe says her raptors are working birds. She calls them employees.

Ms. Radcliffe, the director of the Pacific Northwest Raptors Centre in the Cowichan Valley, provides educational programs in falconry – the hunting of wild quarry by birds of prey.

Visitors to the centre learn how to handle the raptors, as well as their standard nutritional regimes and even about the legislation governing falconry.

Ms. Radcliffe's birds are often called upon for important work at industrial sites, landfills and airports to keep away other birds that have become nuisances.

If geese are hogging the runway at an airport, an eagle will be flown in to scare them away, Ms. Radcliffe says.

The centre closely studies the birds to understand their flying behaviour and their natural relationships with their prey.

"When we do demonstrations and educational work, then what we're trying to do is facilitate their natural behaviour. The birds kind of call the shots and we're their interpreters, and we're out there and we fly them and interpret what they're doing," she said. "They're always training us, it's a two-way street. We learn to work more effectively by responding to their behaviour or cues and providing them with what their needs are."

Falcons and hawks are used most often to pursue prey. The centre uses owls in educational programs only. B.C. legislation does not permit them to be used for falconry.

The centre has more than 100 birds, and Ms. Radcliffe says they are handled intimately from a very young age.

"We like to work with our own birds from when they're young and get them really comfortable from the get-go," she said. "You have to use positive reinforcement, and we obviously feed them for coming back. But it's more than that – it's not just about food, it's about building a bond of trust."