Words Craig Cook
Photography Matt Turner
You’ll hear the message spelt out over and over at Kangaroo Island’s leading tourist attraction of Raptor Domain: “Species, minus habitat, leads to extinction”.
Owners Dave and Leeza Irwin — yes, related to the world-famous Queensland Irwin clan including Bob, Steve, Terri and Bindi — have been caring for wildlife professionally and personally since they first met as teenagers at Wilmington in the Flinders Ranges.
Mr Irwin, a plumber by trade, just like Bob and Steve Irwin, was already a bird of prey fanatic when a keen-eyed 15-year-old Leeza spotted him flying his falcon in a field.
Ten years ago, the couple that has run Birds of Prey displays for Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary, Adelaide Hills Wilderness Lodge, and Vivonne Bay Eco-Adventures, established Raptor Domain with just a battered old money tin, a card table under a pine tree, with five birds and one show a day.
“Our ambition was to educate people about birds of prey,” Mrs Irwin says. “We’ve never taken any animal from the wild and our birds are our ambassadors for the central message of conservation and rehabilitation.”
Today, the five daily flying shows and exhibits bring in tens of thousands of visitors every year. The rich and famous have all dropped by including billionaire Bill Gates and family, Dick Smith, who opened the centre on the present site seven years ago and has made significant donations, Australia’s Next Top Model contestants (models had to mimic one of the birds) and — Mrs Irwin’s clear favourite — Packed to the Rafters actor Erik Thompson who played Dave.
Mrs Irwin has some magic photos with the “TV Dave” but her heart still belongs to her husband and father of their two children, who has virtually single-handedly built an impressive operation.
From the wrought iron flying winged gates at the entrance, his mark is on every square metre of the 150 acre Raptor Domain property, situated nearly 6km north of Seal Bay near the southern coast of Australia’s third largest island.
His monuments include the performance and seating area where up to 285 patrons can sit in relative comfort, in all conditions, every day except Christmas Day — when even the birds still need to be fed and watered. Every bird was either rescued, orphaned, or injured. Several are tame when brought in, suggesting they were raised from eggs but then released by people who couldn’t care for them anymore once they became fully grown.
Raptors — there are nine in Australia from the tiny Nankeen Kestrel to the majestic Wedge Tailed Eagle — are highly dangerous and can maim and even kill a human in certain situations. The word raptor comes from the Latin word rapere meaning, “to see and carry off”. Their three main features include forward facing eyes with binocular vision, a hooked and curved beak for ripping, and strong and powerful talons.
They are related to the man who is known around the world as The Crocodile Hunter and they run one of Australia’s best raptor parks. No wonder even the rich and famous book seats for their amazing show. Read the story behind Kangaroo Island’s Raptor Domain
We see those talons best on the stars of the show, Maraki, a mighty Australian white-bellied sea eagle, the second largest of Australia’s raptors, and Jedda, a wedge-tailed eagle, which amaze with their power and presence.
But first up for today’s audience is Maggie, an Australian magpie, more than ably assisted by the delightful Chantelle, the park’s assistant manager and formerly from the Irwin’s Australia Zoo in Queensland. The show is fully interactive with plenty of opportunities to touch the birds or have them sit on you, while the total focus remains on environmental and conservation education.
Maggie, a predatory bird not a raptor in that she kills with her beak not her claws, pops around the arena picking up rubbish and, on the wing, popping it in a rubbish bin. There are no excuses for humans not to do the same. Magpies have impressive intelligence, comparable with a four-year-old child and Maggie learnt her entire act in six weeks. To the side of the arena is a holding area for the birds and a weighing room.
The weight of each bird taken every morning determines which birds are shown each day. Like boxers or jockeys in their professions, birds need to be at a perfect flying weight to perform. “A full bird is totally demotivated to do anything,” Mr Irwin says. “These activities are totally dependent on food-based reward. They only have to be out by a few grams to be off their game. Then they look at you say and say, ‘No thanks … I don’t need to do that today’.”
Next up is double act Wally the tawny frog mouth and Donald (after Don Bradman), a bush stone curlew or “thick-knee” — a ground bird which can survive because there are no foxes on the island. Most of the audience, aged three to 83, have a gentle stroke of Wally, using the back of a hand because fingertips have oils that strip away the bird’s natural waterproofing oils.
On to the “Kyle and Kylie show”. Kylie is a hobby falcon, the second smallest in Australia and she chases around Kyle, another of the park’s highly informative and passionate staff members who add value to the entire experience. Kylie swoops at incredible speed — more than 200kmh — but she’s not quite up there yet with the Peregrine Falcon, the world’s fastest animal that can reach 400kmh in a steep dive. Kylie was rescued — she has a droopy wing and doesn’t yet have the stamina and fitness to be released. Mr Irwin says it’s the survival of the fittest in the wild and while it is an ultimate success to return a bird to a natural habitat, none are released unless they have the capability to survive.
Soon Casper appears from a tree hollow and flies into the arena. A ghostly white colour, hence the name after the friendly ghost, Casper is a barn owl, one of nine owl breeds in Australia. With ears on the edge of his facial disc, one strategically higher than the other, he can hear a mouse rustling through grass 100m away.
Edna, a brown falcon performing for only the third time and two spectacular blue kookaburras named Mal and Mike after the Blues Brothers, make way for the first big star of the day, Maraki. The sea eagle is magnificent, imperious and all-seeing and the audience is given the sound advice — especially those who are “wallaby size” — to keep perfectly still.
“These birds can turn nasty and once they lock their talons, they are like a zip tie that clicks into place, you would have to kill the bird to get them off,” Mr Irwin says. “And we don’t want to do that.”
Maraki was found in a cage not much bigger than himself on a Northern Territory settlement. As a five-year-old mature bird he had never touched dirt or sat on a perch. He had to learn the fundamental skills of a newborn. This is the true triumph of the work at Raptor Domain because now Maraki enjoys a flight twice a day.
Sea eagles are endangered in South Australia and about one third of the breeding pairs of about 40 are found on KI. Like all other raptors on the island, fresh road kill has become a free and easy feed but also the biggest threat with increased chances of being hit by a vehicle.
Sea eagles are highly aggressive and — it may have something to do with his past — only men can work with Maraki.
Each bird has their own personality traits and few are capable of being strong performers.
Mrs Irwin says she’s seen a lot of “duds”. She’s also seen a rival for her husband’s affections and here she comes — Jenna, a wedge-tailed eagle with a mighty wingspan of 2.7m. Jenna fully believes she’s Mr Irwin’s life partner and she hates his wife with a vengeance. She’s forever checking out where Mrs Irwin is in the arena. “We’ve had her 25 years and she’s got better over time but that’s because I give her total respect,” Mrs Irwin says. “I don’t do eye contact with Jedda and I don’t deliberately flaunt myself when Dave’s around. No kissing. I am the other woman. I did get to say to her one day, ‘I get to go home with him’.”
Right on queue Jedda drops her evil eagle eye on Mrs Irwin but is distracted as a wild grouping of wedge tails circle overhead.
Jedda came to the Irwins as a baby and while she has innate instincts to go and fight she has no skills. She’ll stay with them for life … and despite the complex “marital” tensions, she is a vital part of the operation that will be expanding again with the Irwins promising “something very special” perhaps not seen anywhere in the world, coming soon, to continue their message of preservation of the species.
“We’re the keepers of this planet and it’s up to us to control numbers and safeguard these species,” Mr Irwin says. “When it comes to saving wildlife, you need to educate people about the value of habitat and that’s what we will always do.”