Friday, June 26, 2015

Zoo Show “Radar”

When sitting in the audience of a World Bird Sanctuary bird show at a zoo, the setup may appear simple enough; one person is talking (the Speaker) while two others are mostly backstage (the Trainers) cueing perches for birds to fly to or walking birds offstage.

While memorizing a roughly twelve page long script and fifteen or so different bird flight patterns (the places on stage a particular bird flies to) may not seem too bad, we have a lot more than just script and patterns on our radar!  Like the birds we work with, we must be acutely aware of anything and everything going on around the theater, and react to those things at a second’s notice.

Locust, the Red-legged Seriema, pausing to watch a plane

The main things that we are watching are the behaviors of the avian members of the team.  On the occasion a bird goes to an incorrect perch or is not flying to the next one, it is our job to determine why.  It’s often as simple as trying to look at whatever the bird is looking at!  A plane flying overhead may have caught their attention for a moment, or an audience member sifting through a purse across stage.  Usually re-pointing to a location is all we have to do to re-catch a bird’s attention, and as the Speaker we always have extra facts ready to share to fill in the time.

Riley taking off to fly to his next cue in the bleachers

The second thing everyone has an eye on is the audience.  One of my favorite parts of our show is getting into the bleacher seats and flying Riley, an American Barn Owl, right above and very close to the audience.  As you are walking to the set of bleachers in Riley’s pattern, you have a few sentences to decide where exactly you should go.  A giant snake stuffed animal resting in the back row?  To Riley that looks like a Godzilla-sized predator…not a good spot!  Everyone must keep an eye on the extra-antsy young members in attendance as well.  Emergency bathroom trips are quite common.  Trainers know when the Speaker delays saying a release cue (a point in the script that signals the next bird to appear), it’s a signal that audience members are making their way out of the theater.  Norbert the Bald Eagle should definitely not fly through the entryway at that moment.

Our radar expands to outside the theater too.  Sometimes wild raptors make an appearance in the sky above us.  While a wild Red-tailed Hawk gliding by is no threat to the eagles in the show, stalling is sometimes required if the next bird just so happens to be a smaller species.  It’s almost a guarantee the wild raptor won’t attack any of our birds, but the smaller birds could still react like the wild bird would attack.

The classic “All’s Clear!” sign

This leads to another thing all the human members of the show team are watching--each other!  A Trainer arm appearing above the fence could signal several things to the Speaker.  Pointing skyward, for example, means a wild predator is overhead.  The ever-changing and always-different environment of zoo shows is one of the things I love about them.

Now, after reading this you may be thinking that an awful lot of things can cause a Speaker to stall for time during a show.  However, if you watch a World Bird Sanctuary zoo show at Stone Zoo or Milwaukee County Zoo this summer, you probably won’t be able to tell if anything out of the ordinary is happening!  Our goal during zoo shows is to educate and entertain the audience about the amazing birds of our world.  After all, “stalling” really just means sharing more cool facts!

Submitted by Carmen Volante, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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