Lessons from Travels: A Most Unconventional Raptor Show

by Carl Strang

Hawks, owls and other raptors are unquestionably charismatic. You probably have seen some form of raptor show at some time, in person or on TV, if nothing else perhaps a falcon or eagle flown at a sporting event. Zoos and other educational facilities, including DuPage County’s own Willowbrook Wildlife Center, have trained staff, volunteers and birds which together provide members of the public with up-close learning opportunities. I did not fully appreciate, until I visited the Alice Springs Desert Park in central Australia in late 2000, the significance of one unspoken message that all these examples have in common: they all involve a relationship in which the bird is, or appears to be, subordinate to the handler. I expected much the same when I saw that there was a raptor presentation on the daily schedule at the Desert Park, and so I allowed myself to be distracted along the way and missed the first few minutes. I really wish now that I had seen how it was introduced.

The presentation was set in an outdoor amphitheater, with the cliffs of the MacDonnell Range in the background.

View from the audience. Notice the separation between the presenter on the right, and the bird, which had flown into the arena and perched on the branches to the left.

Interested in the mechanics of the program, I saw how a handler, out of ready view of the audience, released each bird on cue. The bird clearly was trained to fly to the perch in the arena. The speaker did not overtly point out that the birds wore jesses and, significantly, did not distinguish between their birds and free-flying ones. His presentation on the natural history of the trained birds was expertly mixed with commentary on other free raptors and other birds (including a bronzewing pigeon) that came into view.

They flew a brown falcon, which eventually came to the perch in front of the grandstand. The speaker tossed tiny bits of meat, and the bird hopped off the perch and fetched them on foot, all to illustrate the bird’s long legs and walking agility (they perch on treetops and hunt reptiles, mainly).

Brown falcon at Uluru.

He commented that the falcon looked agitated, possibly indicating the presence of a rival on the cliffs above. The best moment came when a wedge-tailed eagle appeared, one of a free-living pair that nest on the cliffs. Only a speck at first when pointed out by the speaker, who evidently expected it, the eagle approached the areana, perhaps in response to its conspecific in the show, which was sent out flying shortly after the free one arrived (had it been exposed to the free one’s view to bring it in?).

The program’s wedge-tailed eagle after it eventually came to rest on the arena perch.

The resident swooped at the program bird, but neither eagle was hurt. The presenter said that the introduction of disease, which is knocking back the rabbit population, is allowing the vegetation and native herbivores to recover. That rebound hasn’t happened, yet, and for the time being the eagles are having it harder than when rabbits were abundant.

This was a thoroughly masterful and creative approach to a program, integrating free-living wildlife with trained animals. I am willing to say that this remains the best interpretive program I have ever seen.  I especially liked the carefully orchestrated separation between the presenter and the birds, which avoided the undesirable (in my opinion) subliminal message of subordination of wildlife to people. When I mentioned the Alice Springs Desert Park in a recent post, Gary Fry, the park’s current Director, made a supportive comment. Gary, if you notice this one as well, and can recognize the presenter from my photo, his name deserves mention.

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