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On a wing and a prayer

Are you the birdman?" every pupil asks, when Alan Ames arrives at Keyworth Primary School in Southwark, in spite of the fact that he wears a large and conspicuous badge with the word "birdman" on it. The excitement is palpable.

It is no less so when he later appears in the hall with a goshawk, a large and beautiful bird of prey, on his arm. In fact, many of the infant and nursery children shout out. One starts crying and is taken aside; some move closer to the teachers, but the rest settle down, enthralled.

Eighteen months ago Alan Ames left his job as a sales manager. Falconry and breeding barn owls were his hobbies, and a request from a local school to give a demonstration was an opportunity to communicate his passion for these birds. It was also the start of a new career.

He now visits several schools a week, giving talks on birds of prey, which are illustrated by the magnificent creatures themselves. Most schools he approaches, after assurances about safety, are happy to have him, but some, he admits, decline on the grounds that they think the use of birds is exploitative.

Inner London, where the pupils' experience of birds is confined lar-gely to the ubiquitous pigeon and the occasional duck or goose in the park, find the visit particularly exciting. As one Keyworth teacher commented, on watching a Harris hawk fly round the school hall, "they've never seen anything like this".

Alan shows five birds first to the infants and nursery children, and then the juniors. They are a goshawk, Lanner falcon, barn owl, Harris hawk and American bald eagle a bird as big as some of the children.

Bar the occasional squawk, defecation and flapping of wings, the birds sit composed on his arm, while he points out their features. Perfectly adapted to their task of killing smaller animals and birds, they all do it in distinctively different ways, depending on the environment.

The Lanner falcon, adapted for living and hunting in wide open spaces, can descend like a bullet from the sky to whack its chosen meal on the head with its "toe". The bald eagle eats a lot of fish and has talons designed to hold the slippery creatures and huge wings to enable it to hover in the air. All have extraordinarily well-developed eyesight and often hearing. The nocturnal barn owl, for instance, can see in the dark but "could find a mouse blindfold if it needs to".

For the juniors, Alan goes into more detail. He also brings in food chains and delivers a strong conservation message. Many of the birds he shows are now extinct in this country or endangered, not only because they have been hunted, but also because of habitat destruction and pollution. "If the environment has an effect on these birds, it also does on us. Remember Tyrannosaurus rex he was top man once".

The highlight of the visit, however, is when the barn owl flies round the hall. A small, very pretty, fluffy creature with a huge head, Alan explains that it is a silent flier, the better to catch a mouse. To prove the point, he calls the bird from one end of the hall to fly silently just over the heads of the children. The group breaks into spontaneous applause.

Carolyn O'Grady Alan Ames runs one-day, five-day and two-year falconry courses for beginners. The five-day course is sufficient to give participants the knowledge to be able to own, train and fly a bird of prey successfully. Students will be taught all the necessary disciplines, including flying birds in the field at quarry. Prices on application. He does not charge for school visits, for which his income derives from donations and the sale of souvenir photographs of pupils with the birds. He is prepared to travel widely. Telephone: 0959 532649.

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