written by Ava Leone and photographed by Lily LaRegina
Alex Matossian’s eyes sparkle when he talks about his daughter Hazel. He smiles as he describes her friendliness, people skills — and her wings.
“My kids have all got feathers,” Matossian said.
Hazel is a brown-feathered owl with bright amber eyes who sits on Matossian’s shoulder from 1 to 9 p.m. on a typical day in Edinburgh, Scotland. They stand in Wardrop’s Court on the Royal Mile and captivate tourists, allowing visitors to pose with Hazel on their arms as well for a small fee.
There are lots of photos on Instagram of people doing the “Hazel hug,” embracing the owl in their arms – even celebrities like actress Vanessa Hudgens and chef Matt Tebbutt.
Matossian developed an interest in birds when he was 10 years old and specifically of birds of prey when he was 12. Eventually, he saved his pocket money to purchase a lanner falcon, which marked the beginning of his “raptor journey.” Now Matossian owns around 50 birds of prey at his home in Perthshire, Scotland.
When he was growing up, he said, his family always had exotic pets, including tropical fish, parrots and reptiles. Matossian was born in Princeton, New Jersey. However, his parents moved to Scotland when he was 2 years old. He has no memories of the United States and even has a Scottish accent.
Matossian finds birds of prey fascinating.
“The way that they are adapted to survive…their methods of hunting are very spectacular,” Matossian said.
He calls himself a falconer and a bird enthusiast. He raised Hazel since when she was a chick, and she has always been comfortable around people.
“Hazel loves meeting people,” Matossian said. “She’ll relax with complete strangers and she’ll treat them pretty much the same way she treats her dad — me being her dad.”
Matossian has been showing his birds in Edinburgh since 2016. Sometimes he will bring another bird — like his golden eagle — for tourists to meet, but his owls (especially Hazel) are the most popular. Owls play into the magical Harry Potter theme that permeates the city.
Matossian’s job allows him to meet people from all over the world.
“You meet every nationality. And you make some good friends. We get people who come year after year, who particularly want to have another shot at Hazel,” Matossian said. “[They] sometimes show us photographs with years of progression. Sometimes it’s parents showing pictures of their children from six years ago, and then they’re getting larger and larger from being way short to being taller than me!”
Occasionally, Matossian will encounter people who are “anti-creatures in captivity,” but he said he tries to “educate” them.
He said the local shops are pleased when he and Hazel greet people near their storefronts, since their popularity drums up business.
Matossian said he hopes to keep introducing individuals to Hazel and to his passion for birds for years to come.
“As long as there are people around, it’s never boring,” he said. “So there’s always something that keeps you motivated.”