Norwich may be known for its canaries, but there is another, larger bird that has been delighting birdwatchers and surprising joggers in recent weeks.
Alfie is a Eurasian eagle owl, one of the world’s largest species that is not native to the United Kingdom.
In one of the most recent sightings, Alfie caught Hattie Atkinson Smith off guard while jogging at Carrow Road stadium, home of Norwich City football club, dubbed the Canaries.
“I felt something like fingers on the back of my skull.” She claimed, “I assumed it was a person pressing their palm down over my head.” “When I raised my eyes, there was this unbelievably massive bird.”
Startled but unhurt, Atkinson Smith watched the bird fly away and land on an apartment balcony. “I could tell it was a bird of prey but I thought it was too big to be an owl … I got a really good look at it.”
Atkinson Smith, a data-science manager, later identified the bird on Google as a Eurasian eagle owl. The birds are easily recognised by their striking orange eyes and tufted ears, as well as their size – weighing up to 4kg, with a wingspan of nearly 2 metres.
Norwich Evening News has been reporting regularly on sightings of “Norwich’s favourite bird of prey” and was this week able to explain the bird’s backstory.
Alfie’s owner, Peter Murphy, told the newspaper that he had been caring for Alfie for four years before the bird was accidentally let loose from his aviary in Lakenham in 2020.
Murphy said he hoped to recapture his much-loved pet – but urged city folk not to approach the owl “unless you have a very long net … he is a very dangerous bird in the wrong hands”..
But Chris Sperring, a conservation officer at the Hawk and Owl Trust, said Alfie had been loose long enough to resist giving up his freedom. “I think its chances in the wild are pretty darn good.”
Eurasian eagle owls are no longer native to Britain, meaning no records are kept of their numbers in captivity, but escaped pets have been known to thrive in the wild and even breed. There is also speculation that the birds may reach Britain from continental Europe, where wild populations have returned.
But the chances of Alfie finding love in Norwich, Sperring suggests, are remote – which may be behind his recent high profile, swooping pedestrians and waking people up with loud hooting at 2am.
“It’s fuelled up, its hormones are running high because of the wonderful Norfolk diet, and it’s saying, ‘Where are you? Why aren’t you answering me? Come on!’” Sperring said.
Alfie’s encounter with Atkinson Smith may have even been an attempt to initiate pair-bonding (not to mate, Sperring clarifies, “unless he’s presenting food to the jogger”). “He’s going to what he knows, and that’s people.”
In February 2015, a Gloucester woman broke her arm while running away from an overeager eagle owl. But Sperring says Alfie is unlikely to pose a threat to any Norwich residents larger than a squirrel.
As the apex owl species, eagle owls were often depicted as “hyped-up super owls”, Sperring said. “But when you’re actually up close you realise there’s an awful lot of feathers.”
Atkinson Smith has since been for runs on Carrow Road without further encounters with Alfie. “It’s not a dangerous bird, it obviously just confused me for something smaller,” she said. “I’ve just been keeping my head up.”
This article by Elle Hunt was first published by The Guardian on 11 March 2022. Lead Image: Eurasian eagle owls can weigh up to 4kg and have a wingspan of nearly 2 metres. Photograph: lethanhhieu03101996/Getty Images/500px.
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