|Loki and me – that grin is really not an everyday one|
It was last year, reading Joe Shute’s A Shadow Above: the fall and rise of the raven, that I first came across Loki and Coda Falconry.
While I haven’t written much about it here, I have a thing about ravens – those huge, deeply intelligent birds, steeped in mythology, but also a source of fear across the globe.
The Norse god, Odin the Allfather, feared that there would be a day when his newsgathering corvids, Huginn (knowledge) and Muninn (memory), would not return.
In March 2016, after a trip to the Tower of London specifically to go raven spotting, I wrote that there was something poetic in the idea of a god that feared losing memory. While scholars have suggested that that originally refers to a fear of not returning from a shamanistic trance, for us, it can seem poignantly like the fear of dementia.
Little over a year later, after my mother had died suddenly, it started to become clear that Dad was suffering from more than ‘forgetfulness’, as his GP blithely insisted. The ravens had flown and the mists were descending rapidly.
As we slipped into the final autumn of his life and the hospital visits became more and more frequent, I would ritualistically greet the crows that hung around the hospital itself and in the open field opposite. The ancient belief in a link between death and the cawing corvids seemed alive, yet their presence was almost reassuring.
|With Dizzy, a beautiful (if brainless) barn owl|
I have seen ravens in the wild since that Tower visit: in Bavaria, circling the medieval towers of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in the early spring sunshine, and kronking away from a rooftop opposite our hotel.
Last autumn, speeding past Thurrock on a train, I caught a glimpse of a pair. There had been countless crows in the fields as we passed. Then these two birds on their own, so obviously much bigger, yet (as much as I could ascertain in seconds), about as near to tracks as the crows had been.n
Later, a friend with a great deal of expertise in birding told me that, if I had such a strong gut response, then I was probably right. And as Shute’s book makes clear, ravens are making a comeback.
Loki is a rescue raven. When he arrived at Coda, he was clearly traumatised and deeply unhappy.
Yes, yes – that’s discussing a bird in terms of emotions. Not so long ago, to do as much would have been dismissed as the near heresy of anthropomorphism, but the science world is finally learning about non-human species in terms of emotion and intelligence. No longer are people who talk of their cats and dogs the only ones who contemplate such things – and while it brings it’s own challenges, it’s also a welcome end to a particular kind of species-based exceptionalism.
It took time and considerable dedication for falconer Elliot Manarin to gain his trust – and Elliot still bears the physical scars. But Loki is now very much a part of team Coda and you can arrange to meet him.
|Star, a saker falcon, on my fist. How beautiful!|
So, last December, The Other Half gave me a birthday present of vouchers to do precisely that – and to enjoy a half-day falconry experience beforehand.
We finally managed to get booked in a couple of months ago and on Monday, made our way up London’s Lee Valley to the falconry, which sits within the Lee Valley Park Farms. It’s a very pleasant walk from Cheshunt station to the site, across part of the Lee Valley Country Park (with lots of birds).
The OH was there to film and shoot. We were with a small group and were led by head falconer Emily Corless and falconer Paul Ryder, spending time first with Teo, a young (and very noisy) aplomado falcon, then Dizzy, an exquisitely beautiful barn owl who is Emily’s favourite (though obviously she doesn't really have any favourites).
In both cases, the group took turns to have the birds fly to their gloved fist to collect raw meat (this is not an experience for the squeamish).
Then Paul and Emily took us into nearby fields and woodland with Griff, a 14-year-old harris hawk.
Unusually, these hawks hunt in groups – and in a situation such as our walk, regard the humans with them as being that group. Griff flew straight from his box into a tree and then followed us as we walked on, with Paul setting food on fists to get him to come down, showing us a variety of his flying skills.
This got a little more complex at one point as the rain came on and Griff refused to come to the fist – until substantial food was available (a mouse).
Back at the falconry, we met Freya, a snowy owl, as she flew to us for food.
|Feeding Loki cat biscuits|
Then it was the turn of Star, a saker falcon. First, Emily used a lure (food on a rope, in essence) spinning it around to exercise the bird and give us the chance to admire her flying abilities. Then, giving a call of “ho!” she let the lure go. Star caught it in mid air and took it to the ground to eat.
In turn, in a “trade off” as it’s known in the falconry world, Star was then encouraged to fly to each of us in turn with more food.
A display for people visiting the farm park followed with Eclipse, a rare black barn owl, Rico, a three-year-old harris hawk, Storm, a peregrine/gyr/barbary falcon, and Otis, a tiny sunda scops owl.
Then we were given certificates and everyone left, bar the OH and me.
Now was the moment.
Outside, Paul opened Loki’s enclosure and he flew out to his little toy piano, where he hit the keys with his beak until receiving cat biscuits as a reward. He prefers the cat biscuits to the bits of chicken that I held in a gloved hand so that he’d fly up to me.
I’d been near to Merlina at the Tower, but having a raven on your fist – and then hopping around on your shoulders – is entirely another matter. They are seriously big birds – and magnificent too; iridescent blues and greens and purples visible in their feathers as a they move.
There were further toys – including one he had only seen once or twice before: but with bewildering speed, he knew how to open boxes, use leavers and remove pieces in order to get at biscuits.
The intelligence is clear. Having read about the toys, I had half wondered if it was a tad exploitive – as with a circus animal. But once you understand a corvid’s need for stimulation, it becomes clear that this is not remotely exploitation.
He is mischievous too. In the picnic area next door, Emily had parked herself in case he spotted food. It had rained, so surely there was little risk? But then a family arrived and one child pulled a cheese and ham sandwich out. Loki was there in seconds – no aggressive behaviour – with Emily having to dive in to usher him back.
Back in his enclosure, with me feeding him cat biscuits, he showed us how he stashes his food. He’ll store it as much as possible in his beak and then, when he thinks nobody is watching, bury it beneath the small stones on the floor. He does this outside too, but that can end up in infuriation when other corvids (magpies, crows) see – and dig up the food when he’s safely back in his pen.
We left for the walk back to Cheshunt and the train home. All the birds were magnificent, but as Paul and Emily noted, for birds of prey, the only thing that matters is food (and breeding, presumably): they don’t really have intelligence or emotions. Indeed, contrary to popular perception, owls are “stupid,” Emily told our small group early on.
As Paul noted during the public display later, when you can fly silently and have the hearing and sight they do, you don’t really need much in the brain department.
Loki is a bird of a different feather. And I will absolutely be visiting again. I am in love and in awe – and for me at least, this corvid affair has nothing to do with death, but very much the opposite.
• Find out more at codafalconry.co.uk, www.facebook.com/codafalconry/, at Loki's own Facebook page – www.facebook.com/lokitraven/ – and twitter.com/CodaFalconry and as @CodaFalconry on Instagram too.
• Joe Shute's superb book about ravens is readily available. I highly recommend it – and you can follow him on twitter.com/JoeShute. Read an article he penned for the Telegraph about Loki here.