It may be a city more famous for its canaries, but in Norwich there is another more substantial bird that has been delighting birdwatchers and startling joggers in recent weeks.
His name is Alfie – a Eurasian eagle owl, one of the largest species in the world that is not native to Britain.
In one of the most recent sightings, Alfie took Hattie Atkinson Smith by surprise on Monday as she jogged near Carrow Road stadium, home to Norwich City football club, AKA the Canaries.
“I felt something on the back of my head, like fingers. I thought it was a person, pushing their hand down over my head,” she says. “I looked up, and there was this absolutely ginormous bird.”
Started 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 recognized 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 favorite bird of prey” and was able this week 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 at Lakenham in 2020.
Murphy said he hopes 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,” he explained.
But Chris Sperring, the Hawk and Owl Trust conservation officer, says Alfie has 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 fueled 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!’” says Sperring.
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 are often depicted as “hyped-up super owls”, Sperring says, “but when you’re actually up close, you realize 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 says. “I’ve just been keeping my head up.”