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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Flights of Fancy

"Close the door!" my coworker shrieked, about three seconds too late to do any good.  Before the words were even out of her mouth, a long, turquoise-and-gold streak shot over my head and out the door.  On pure reflex, I started to lift a hand to grab it, before suddenly hesitating.  I'd seen what the beak of a blue-and-yellow macaw could do to a hard-shelled nut.  I was, to say the least, I little too attached to all of my fingers for that.

The next several minutes were spent scouring the zoo grounds for the feathered fugitive, as well as bickering back and forth over who was to blame.  I opened the door without knocking.  So what, I replied?  Who among us had ever knocked on the break room door before opening it?  It's not like it was a changing room.  And there certainly were never animals flying around in it.  What the hell had she been doing, anyway?

The answer came at the exact moment that we spotted our bird - sixty feet up in a pine tree in the zoo's parking lot (thankfully, it was empty at the close of the day... unthankfully, that meant it would be dark soon).  She'd been training the parrot for use in what she envisioned would be the zoo's first ever free-flight show.  Craning my neck up at the mocking macaw, I deduced that we were off to a bad start.

There are few spectacles of nature more everyday, yet otherworldly, than birds in flight.  Most of the time, our exposure to it consists of small birds - robins, sparrows, starlings - fluttering from branch to bird feeder.  The experience becomes far more spectacular with big birds... and the bigger, the more extraordinary. 

Some trainers and zookeepers have responded with free-flight shows, where birds - usually spectacular species, such as large parrots, ravens, and raptors - fly over the heads of the audience, coming to land in front of their eyes.  At various zoos, I've seen kites snatch thrown food out of the air, macaws swoop down the aisles of a packed arena, and a raven pluck a dollar bill from the outstretched hands of a visitor and drop it in a donation jar, all without missing a wingbeat.  The appeal to visitors is obvious.  The enrichment and exercise opportunities for the birds are readily apparent.  The stress levels for the keepers?  *Shudder*

They call us "zookeepers"... as in, we're supposed to "keep" the animals in the zoo.  Taking a zoo-born bird and letting it up into the air requires more than superb training skills... it requires a lot of trust.  Trust that the bird will fly to where it is supposed to, and not make a beeline for the horizon.  Trust that you can recall the bird should anything happen to throw it off its routine, such as the sudden presence of wild birds which could alarm it.  Trust that you can guarantee the safety of the bird when there is nothing between it and the visitors but air... and vice versa.  You can prepare for the flight as many times as you like in an aviary or flight cage.  Once you let go of the jesses, however... you're on a wing and a prayer... as trainers at the National Aviary recently discovered with one of their free-flight birds, a hooded vulture.

I'm comfortable admitting, I've never felt I've had anywhere near the training chops to pull this off... but I take comfort in the fact that 99% of the bird keepers I know don't either.  Some zoos contract out free-flight shows to companies of specialized trainers, who work tirelessly with their birds to develop the relationships and trust necessary to do this flights.  Others do them in-house, and the bond that goes into the work is extraordinary.  Even so, I think I could take a bird, raise it from chick to adult, spend all day every day working with it, training and shaping the behaviors of flying from me to a perch, or vice versa... and still never feel ready to take it outside and try it under the open sky.

A big part of that might have to do with our elusive macaw.  We tried coaxing her with treats.  Calling her by name.  Even bringing out another macaw (this one feather-clipped) hoping to lure her down.  No dice.  Eventually, we had to admit defeat with darkness coming.  We called the fire department, who sent someone with a net up in a bucket truck.  My heart was in my mouth the entire time - I was sure that the bird would fly off the second that it saw the alien monster reaching up to her.  We asked if one of us could be the one to go up in the truck, but were refused for safety reasons.

Luckily, it worked.  The fireman was able to net her and bring her - struggling more than a bit - back to the ground, where we scooped her up with a towel and hurried her inside.

That was the last of our free flight fancies.  From that point on, we were both happy to leave them to the professionals.

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