LIFE CHANGING BIRDS
As a child, Aaron Burns couldn’t read even the simplest of books and had trouble stringing sentences together when speaking to people. Aaron also suffered from poor coordination, which meant he was unable to ride a bike.
At the age of seven, he was taken to a London specialist who diagnosed severe dyslexia. “In fact, it was one of the worst types of dyslexia he could have,” John, his father, told me. “The school he was attending at the time didn’t believe dyslexia actually existed as a condition,” said Aaron, now 30. “Teachers felt it was a polite way of saying I was thick! That did traumatise me a bit.” When he was eight, Aaron visited a bird of prey centre in Cornwallwith his parents while holidaying in the county. “After watching a flying display, I was allowed to hold a barn owl. I asked the falconer all sorts of questions about the bird and from that point on was hooked on owls. He could see I was really enthusiastic, suggested I should learn more about owls and then see if my dad would allow me to have one of my own. I had always loved animals, especially anything that could fly.”
The following year, the Burns family returned toCornwalland revisited the bird of prey centre. “The guy recognised us and asked if my dad had got me a barn owl yet. My dad told him he didn’t think I had really looked into it enough. He said he wouldn’t mind helping me to look after an owl, but didn’t want to end up being solely responsible for it. After chatting to the guy and correctly answering all the questions he asked me about owls, he told my dad that I really knew my stuff.” Such was his interest in owls that Aaron’s mother used to read him books about these birds. “When you have an interest in something, you absorb information much more quickly. I know I certainly did. Despite my dyslexia, I started retaining much more information. I really wanted to learn more. I even started picking up owl books myself and trying to read them. Owls helped my reading a lot.”
At the age of 10, Aaron started attending Sunnydown School in Caterham,Surrey– a specialist educational centre for boys with learning difficulties. “I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t gone to Sunnydown,” said Aaron. “ It gave me everything I needed.” Aaron was also 10 when his parents bought him a barn owl. “They got me one in the end because I think they felt it was going to be something that would encourage me and build up my confidence. My confidence at the other school had been very low because of the abuse I used to get from teachers who thought I was thick.” Aaron progressed rapidly at Sunnydown. Sadly, his first barn owl, Merlin, died after only one year. “I don’t know if something like a heart attack spooked her, but she missed her nest hole, slammed into the fence and broke her neck. I was really, really upset.”
A year elapsed before Aaron acquired a replacement barn owl he named Archimedes (Archie for short). “She was a brilliant owl and imprinted heavily on me. So much so, she would attack anyone else who entered her aviary, although she was as good as gold when she came out. One of her tricks was spiralling down from the sky and catching a piece of meat in mid-flight. She died a couple of years ago at 16 – a good age for a barn owl.” Just after his 14th birthday, Aaron acquired an Indian eagle owl he called Kalamazoo (Kal for short). As the years passed, so Aaron’s collection of owls grew and grew. Today, he has 20 birds of 13 species which are kept in a dozen or so aviaries.
“I think owls have a calming persona,” he said. “They are not what I would call ‘flappy’ birds. There are so many fascinating things about them - the way they fly, see, hear and hunt their prey. I have always been a big fan of fantasy books and films, like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. To me, owls seem to come from a magical, mystical world in which I can lose myself.” Aaron, who is single and lives with his parents in Banstead,Surrey, divides his working life between being a supervisor at a local ASDA store four days a week and flying and displaying his owls the other three days. “I get an enormous amount of pleasure and satisfaction from taking my owls to schools and old people’s homes,” he beamed. “I started by doing a talk/display at one Sunrisehome for the elderly and they recommended me to others in the group. “Elderly people love to know about my birds as characters. When I tell them some of the things they get up to and the way they interact with me, they always end up laughing.”
Aaron even took some of his owls to Sunnydown School while he was a pupil there. “I think they wanted to encourage me and could see how my owls helped me overcome some of the problems associated with dyslexia. “By the time I left Sunnydown, my reading had improved a lot, although it still wasn’t perfect. I persevered, though, by reading owl books. Now I can read mostly anything to myself, although I get stuck with the odd word.” Aaron is clearly devoted to his snowy, great grey, striped, northern hawk, brown wood, western screech, white-faced, Tengmalm’s, boobook, Turkmenian eagle and tawny owls. “A lot of people with dyslexia have social problems,” said Aaron’s father. “The one thing that Aaron has is a huge talent to interact with adults and children alike – something to which the glowing testimonials on his website refer. “Checking his birds is the first thing he does when he gets up in the morning, no matter what the weather, and the first thing he does when he gets home from work at the end of the day. His owls always come first. The way he cares for them and the bond he has with them is quite amazing. Zak, his Turkmenian eagle owl, absolutely idolises him.”
Said Aaron: “Some of my birds are so funny. Zak, for example, thinks I am his mate and tries to feed me day-old chicks.” Although there is little room left in the Burns’ garden for more aviaries (especially as dad John keeps prize-winning exotic fish), Aaron would like to specialise partly in owls rarely kept and bred in theUK, such as the Oriental bay owl. “Bay owls are quite solitary and secretive and not seen that much in the wild. It would be really interesting to keep and breed some of these. So if any readers know of any available….!”
Aaron runs his Owls To You business partly for pleasure and partly to raise money to offset his food and other costs. His owls consume not only 400 day-old chicks a week – these are ordered in batches of 3,000 at a time – but also large rats, rabbits and hamsters. “Initially, I kept the frozen food in the bottom tray of mum’s freezer, but that situation couldn’t last forever. Now I have a big commercial freezer in the garage and an overflow freezer in my little shed.”
Concluded Aaron: “Owls have been my salvation. I am quite amazed at what I have achieved through them. I can now read and retain things, although I still have short-term memory problems, and I am proud of the fact I am really knowledgeable about something. “I have much more confidence now. Given the difficulties I have already overcome, I no longer worry about what the future may hold. Whatever problems I encounter, I now have the confidence to overcome them – and all thanks to my owls.”
This article was written by Ron Toft with whom the copyright resides and appeared in Cage & Aviary.
About Ron Toft.
Ron Toft is a freelance journalist and photographer of 45 years’ wide-ranging international experience specialising in features on wildlife, ecotourism, aviculture and countryside/green issues. He has written for dozens of publications in Britain and well beyond, including Cage & Aviary Birds, Africa Birds & Birding, Parrots, Countryside, The Countryman, BBC Wildlife, Travel Zambia, Travel Africa, Zambian Traveller, Good Motoring (regular wildlife feature slot), Hampshire Magazine (chief countryside/wildlife feature writer), various inflight magazines (e.g. those published by or on behalf of Emirates, Qatar Airways, South African Express, Eva Air, Air Pacific, Flybe, Ethiopian Airlines and Royal Brunei Airlines)and the passenger magazines of Brittany Ferries and Irish Ferries. Ron, a former membership secretary of the British Guild of Travel Writers, is also proprietor of Osprey Editorial Services (editorial copywriting for brochures, leaflets and news releases etc for wildlife/conservation organisations).