Photos by Chris Bethell
Hundreds of falcons go missing in the UK and Europe every year, and one husband-and-wife team have taken it upon themselves to reunite all those wandering birds with their rightful owners.
Barbara Royle and her husband, Keith (who didn't want to be interviewed or photographed for this article), run the Independent Bird Register (IBR), which is essentially a lost-and-found for birds. The couple round up and return lost falcons, eagles, hawks, and other birds of prey, as well as the occasional parrot, pigeon, raven, and owl. They've been in charge for the past couple of years, but the IBR itself celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, passing the 6,000th bird reunion mark and boasting over 15,000 members.
The entire organization now operates out of the Royles' semi-detached home in suburban Manchester, running seven days a week, all year round. The couple live with their three birds—Roxy, Blaise, and Rocky—and Barbara tells me the bulk of their workload is matching up found birds, or birds that have been spotted by the general public, with their correct owners, as well as dealing with call-outs for lost birds.
Barbara took charge of the IBR in 2012, and in 2014 alone reunited 398 birds with their owners. That's more than one bird a day, a figure made even more impressive by the fact that, at 55 years old, she heads up the organization while also maintaining a regular nine-to-five job.
The organization isn't a charity and only brings in enough money to cover the running costs. However, no matter how tough or time-consuming the job gets, Barbara doesn't seem to regret taking it on, nor does she resent the responsibility—the level of care she puts into both her own birds and others' is undeniable.
"Some of these birds are people's lives—they spend years training them," she says. "It's about developing trust, not 'taming' them. To have them taken away, or for them to go missing, is terrible."
Barbara herself first fell in love with falconry when she was 15, but didn't get the opportunity to try it out until much later in life.
"I met Keith in 2001, and one day we'd gone to a place called Symonds Yat, which is down in Ross-on-Wye [Herefordshire]," she tells me. "As we were going through a field, this peregrine went over the top of the car. I was so fascinated, so Keith said to me, 'Just go and do it.' We got married in 2004, and I think I spent all my honeymoon going round falconry centers. It's true!"
Falcons are a pretty bold choice of companion, so when Barbara tells me there are thousands of keepers in the UK, it comes as quite a surprise. The majority of these owners will be practicing falconry, which involves both keeping and training falcons, while also using them to hunt "quarry" (small birds and mammals) in their natural environment.
In other words, falconers do a lot more than sit around at country fairs with a bird perching on their arm: They take them out into the wild and get them to circle, swoop, and kill.
"There are a lot of falconers in this country, but you would never find them—unless you knew where to look, I suppose. It's a close-knit community," Barbara tells me. "It's easy to find centers, but not so easy to find actual falconers. It's the nature of the sport—not everybody likes it, not everybody agrees with it, even though it's a 4,000-year-old sport. Well, not sport."
"People actually used to use it to put food on the table."
It's hard to know whether to call falconry a sport, an art, an activity, or a pastime. And as it's not exactly the most publicized subculture, the world of falconry operates almost undetected to the general population, unless a confused Harris hawk or lost and angry peregrine comes crashing into our kitchen window.
However, there are clearly plenty of people at it: "You've got youngsters from 14 years old, to guys past 70 and 80 years old, practicing falconry, all from different backgrounds," says Barbara.
British falconers are trying to make their hobby part of the country's national heritage, which really isn't that far-fetched an idea: Falconry already has UNESCO status in countries ranging from South Korea to Morocco to the Czech Republic. There's also an entire hospital dedicated to falcons in UAE, where they invite tourists for a "once in a lifetime experience" grand tour of the complex, including a thorough dive into the history of falconry. It was even reported at the end of 2014 that the airline Lufthansa are now allowing passengers to bring their falcons onboard flights in order to attract Middle Eastern hunting enthusiasts.
So perhaps we should try to be slightly more aware of a practice going on throughout the UK that has such international significance. And as Barbara implores, we certainly shouldn't be strangers to the fact that lost and missing falcons are a much bigger problem than you might think. The IBR's Facebook page illuminates just how many birds are going missing all the time, and all over the country.
"I once got a call from a man at an office block in Croydon who said they had a large bird perched for ages on their window sill," says Barbara, recounting one of the many times a bird of prey has ended up in an unusual location (she mentions one person climbing a windmill and another jumping into a canal to rescue lost falcons).
But what do you do if you end up coming across a great big bird somewhere it doesn't belong? Barbara reminded me that IBR-registered birds should have blue rings on their feet, and suggested that the best thing to do is to take a picture of the bird on your phone and send it to her, along with the location of the sighting. If you're feeling brave, you could even try taking hold of the bird yourself—though it doesn't sound like the best of ideas.
"They can be quite a dangerous animal," warns Barbara. "Watch the feet. They grab with their feet."