Mafra’s Birds of Prey

Our Portuguese host suggested we go to Mafra, saying, “Fewer people go there.” Before arriving in Portugal Michael and I had made grand plans to travel hither and thither from our quiet Sintra countryside base but quickly found ourselves un-inclined.

MafraThe surrounding natural beauty and ancient wonders—Sintra is a Unesco World Heritage Site—had us enthralled. Our first exploit into Lisbon had too. And then there was my grief that didn’t so much have me enthralled as it had me in its clutches. Seven months after my father’s death and the loss continues to drive deep and hard within me. A simple revelation that came as a surprise is that when someone loved dies you don’t only miss who they were at the time of their death but who they were and who they were to you during all the years you shared. My father and I spoke once or twice every day and saw each other often.

All that made Mafra doable; it was only 30 minutes away. There a 17th century Baroque and Italianized neoclassical palace-monastery was built after a longed for child, a daughter, was born to Queen Mary Anne of Austria and King John V. The place, as you can see from the photo, is enormous. The basilica alone has six pipe organs and 92 bells, the library has 40,00 books, and the palace has 1,200 rooms, none of which did we see. We never got past the courtyard.

In a corner of the spacious courtyard was a cordoned-off area within which over a dozen birds of prey sat on individual perches. There I met and got to hold a European Eagle Owl and a Falcon. These birds were all born in captivity and live behind the palace where they do get to fly a little but spend their days on public view.

Owl, MafraFor a few Euros one can hold a bird. These animals have unknowingly dedicated their lives to education. And I felt for them and their shackled lives and yet was grateful (as I never am at a zoo) to be able to look into the eyes of two birds of prey—to touch an owl’s head, to stroke the chest of a falcon.

The experience made my life bigger by moving birds of prey from the abstract into the here-and- now, into the actual. Held on my outstretched arm, the Eagle Owl was so big and not nearly as heavy as I’d expected. The Falcon had a steely aloofness about her I was almost put off by, but in a good way, an authentic one. As I wrote about in Step into Nature, in order to feel inclined to care for the earth and her beings we need to hold the earth up close, in whatever form.

FalconThe organization that runs this educational program is called AmbiFalco. Information about their important work may be found at and There are US organizations doing similar necessary work such as Wild Care: or 415-456-SAVE.