Enraptured by Raptors

Article By Margot Lowe

by The 3rd Degree, Edith Cowan University

Birds of Prey by the 3rd DegreeWhiteman Park has added a birds of prey display to its list of attractions, giving presenter Yvonne Sitko a chance to entertain the public while educating them about raptors’ conservation and rehabilitation.

Did you hear the story about the black kites that have learned how to kill cane toads by turning them upside down and feeding from underneath, thus avoiding the poison glands? Or that the fastest bird in the world is the peregrine falcon, that can reach speeds of 180km/h? Or that if the whistling kite could read the newspaper, it would be able to make out the fine print from one and a half km away?

You can learn this and more at Perth’s only regular free-flight birds of prey display.

Whiteman Park in Caversham, 25 minutes drive from Perth’s city centre, is known for its bushwalking trails, picnic areas, model aircraft centre and transport museum.

In 2005 the park added a new display run by Yvonne Sitko from the West Australian Birds of Prey Centre. Sitko uses entertainment to focus on conservation, wildlife rehabilitation and environmental education.

Sitko has been a bird lover for as long as she can remember, but it wasn’t until she visited the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore in 1998 that she encountered people working with birds in the entertainment industry.

“When I saw the demonstration with the parrots and birds of prey I loved the atmosphere and realised that we could do demonstrations and displays in Australia,” she says.

After seeing an exhibit by the Society for the Preservation of Raptors at the Perth Royal Show in 2000, Sitko began caring for sick, injured and orphaned birds. She has since completed studies in Lands, Parks and Wildlife management, and travelled to the UK where she learned more about falconry and gained skills in training raptors and managing a bird of prey centre.

Her display currently includes up to six species of native birds of prey. The presentation is built around the habitats found at Whiteman Park, with the intention of educating members of the community about the flora and fauna indigenous to the local ecosystem.

If that sounds a bit heavy, it’s not. Sitko presents it in a way that’s fast and feather light.

Her primary focus is rehabilitation. If birds come in sick and injured, the priority is to release them back into the wild.

“If they can’t be released, they’re usually euthenased. But on rare occasions they go to a park or sanctuary for educational purposes,” she says.

Sitko specialises in helping the birds with their flying prior to release. “It helps them increase their fitness, their confidence with the elements, and makes sure they have the best chance of survival,” she says. “We’re talking a 90% survival rate as opposed to a 60% survival rate on release.”

Using entertainment as an educational tool works, says Sitko, because the conservation message has far more impact when people can see, feel and experience the birds first hand.

“I’m passionate about what I do, and that comes through when I’m demonstrating. I love to bring the birds up nice and close, and at the same time to educate, so that the birds will still be around in the future.”

There are rules, however, which must be obeyed. Every bird she uses in the displays must be approved and registered by the Department of Conservation and Land Management. “They have to have an ideal nature, have to be able to fly or perform in some way, must have no major defects,” says Sitko.

The arena at Whiteman Park is ideal. It is a natural environment, and what the audience sees are natural behaviours, flying styles and hunting techniques. Sitko uses a combination of voice and visual commands, including stance and hand and finger signals, to direct the birds. She also uses lures, a traditional method of falconry.

Working with birds of prey is a lifestyle choice for Sitko. She works with them six days a week, and is on call as a volunteer every day. “The display birds have a day or two off when they get lots of food and relaxation, and that’s when I work elsewhere to pay my bills.”

One of those bills is for the birds’ food, or the ‘mouse bill’, as she calls it. “I buy mice and rats which are specially bred as food supplies. They come frozen in 2kg blocks. I also buy day-old chickens, six-week-old chickens and fish. The birds eat better than I do!”

Show times are at 11am and 2.30pm on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, and at 11am during school holidays at Mussel Pool West (adjacent to Car Park 18) at Whiteman Park, Lord Street, Whiteman, weather permitting.

If there’s a downpour, leave your visit for another day. Not only would you have to sit in the rain, but the raptors wouldn’t be flying. They simply stop when their feathers get waterlogged.