We admit we were dubious when it was first suggested that we take our kids to the Birds of Prey Show, just outside Mirdif. After all, they are rough enough with the long-suffering family dogs, so adding sharp claws and razor-like beaks into the mix, we felt, might not be the wisest choice.
But in spite of our initial reservations, we bundle the kids into the car on a Friday morning, and even arrive early at the venue. Housed behind a high, white wall off the Airport Road near Al Khawaneej, it’s not in the most obvious location. But once you arrive, it does not disappoint.
Surrounded by lots of green foliage, it’s cool and rustic inside with a peacefully shaded spectator’s area, a children’s playground and several little open bird huts that house a variety of impressive owls.
While the children investigate the feathery specimens, we are met by Sandra Stukenbruck, one half of the husband and wife duo who have run the show since 2008. Sandra explains the performance is part of a much more extensive breeding programme, which also rehabilitates birds that have been mistreated.
‘We use around 30 birds in the show – about 15 in each performance – and they are all well trained and safe to handle,’ she says. We ask her about the noisy snowy owl that is squawking enthusiastically at one of our kids. ‘Oh, that’s not aggression!’ she laughs. ‘He was hand reared and is very friendly. He’s saying hello.’
Soon it’s time for the show to begin, and the performance opens with a chatty pair of kestrels who like nothing better than to hop across the heads of the people in the audience. One lands on me, but the boys are are having none of it. ‘Don’t let it come on me mummy!’ wails the little one, clutching his head with both hands.
After that, we’re treated to a performance by desert eagle owls, peregrine falcons and a pair of hungry buzzards. Zoltan, Sandra’s husband, asks for a volunteer to ‘be the rabbit’. One young lad bravely agrees, and is handed a toy rabbit on a lead.
‘Run over there, pulling the rabbit behind you as fast as you can,’ says Zoltan, ‘and then everyone can see exactly how buzzards hunt and catch their prey.’
He bolts off, but the birds are on the bunny before you can say ‘Peter Rabbit’ and they spread their wings over it to cover their prey. ‘That’s the buzzard’s way of showing us he doesn’t want to share his meal,’ explains Zoltan.
Next up, is Johnny – the American bald-headed eagle and a local celeb, because a couple of years ago during a training session, he flew away. Zoltan explains: ‘Normally they come back, but someone caught Johnny and kept him for nine months. We even ran a campaign to get him back in 7Days. He turned up when the person tried to sell him. Unfortunately, I had to buy my own bird back again!’
After that, we meet Shorty, a falcon who arrived at the centre minus his tail feathers. Sandra says, ‘We think he was kept in a small cage, which is how he lost his tail. We wanted to help him fly, so we gathered up some spare falcon feathers, and literally made him fake tail extensions. It worked, he learned to fly again, and a year later his own plumage grew back – but the name Shorty stuck for good.’
By now, the boys are enthralled, and clamour to stroke the birds as they are introduced. Our older one dons a falconers glove and proudly holds a barn owl and a beady-eyed buzzard too.
Then the vultures make their debut. The biggest one, called Baby, seems to love the audience and has to be called back to his perch several times. ‘Vultures are extremely sensitive,’ says Zoltan. ‘Even though they have theability to eat dead flesh crawling with bacteria, their immune systems are so sensitive that treating them with the simplest of medications can actually kill them. They remember everything too, and if you upset them once, they will hold it against you forever.’
‘They also have the most amazingly sensitive nostrils – and can smell their food from over 30 kilometres away. Can you imagine being able to smell a MacDonald’s meal all the way over in Dubai Marina?’ asks Sandra. She then adds that vultures instinctively know if a person or animal is sick. ‘Vultures only eat flesh that is already dead. They are not predatory in the least. But they do have an uncanny ability to spot weakness. So, if your pet vulture starts following you around and eyeing you with interest, go and visit the doctor immediately!’
All too soon it’s the end of the show, and we’re amazed an hour-and-a-half has gone by so quickly. But the fun isn’t over just yet, as we are invited back stage to meet all the stars again. By the time we leave, our boys have decided the dogs are boring, and that eagles are the next best thing. ‘Can we have one mummy – can we have one, please?’ Right! It’s definitely time for lunch….
The Birds of Prey Show runs every Friday and Saturday at 10.30 and 5pm, and on Tuesdays there’s a schools performance at 10am. Dhs50 (adults) and Dhs25 (children aged three to 12). The show stops for the season at the end of March. birdsofprey-show-dubai.jimdo.com