Free flight bird show
by Ardaan Gerritsen
Nowadays there are quite a few places in the Netherlands, mostly in tourist regions in the east and south of the country, where you can visit ‘Free flight bird shows’, ‘Bird demonstrations’ and ‘Flying hawk displays’. Why is it that Rotterdam Zoo should present a Free Flight Bird Show as well?
We think we have good reasons to do so! The most important reason is that Rotterdam Zoo likes the exotic animals to show their natural behaviour as much as possible. That can be done by housing them in an enclosure based on their natural habitat (often referred to as ‘biotope’ in Rotterdam Zoo). Another approach is to let the animals give a demonstration after their training. Rotterdam’s free flight bird show differs from most other shows. Our birds are challenged only to show their natural behaviour. During the 30 minutes’ free flight demonstration some of our birds of prey, namely our five black kites can thoroughly enjoy themselves, playing with the wind, a behaviour that is impossible in whichever aviary. Black kites are real wind artists!
Our common knowledge about vultures is that they have a naked head and neck convenient for the birds when they dig their heads into a bloody carcass. But seeing it happen before your eyes is a different story!
A second reason for a free flight bird show is that there are always birds living behind the scenes. Often there are too many of a certain species, or there are birds awaiting to be send to another zoo after a while. There has been a year in which the keel-billed Toucan produced unusually many offspring. We then let one of those Toucans take part in the free flight show till the moment we needed the bird again for our breeding programme. So the bird went back to its congeners in the Victoria Glass House. In this way ‘surplus’ birds are visible for our visitors.
For quite some time we had a lonely Lilac breasted Roller in one of our pheasant aviaries. We decided to let it take part in the free flight bird show. This happened to be a good idea because first of all it meant a daily diversion for this bird and secondly it was now able to exhibit an extraordinary and unusually pretty behaviour, which it could not show in the aviary.
A third reason is that we (in Rotterdam Zoo) are able to show a bigger variety of birds in the free flight display than anywhere else. A speedy terrestrial bird like the South-American Red-legged seriema shows a totally different behaviour than a couple of Swainson’s hawks with their special allocation of tasks. A nocturnal hunter like the barn owl does not make any noise when flying, whereas each wing-beat of an Asian wreathed hornbill sounds like a rainshower. An experience you will never forget!
The variety of a free flight bird show guarantees a fascinating happening from the first till the last minute. An exciting show that cannot last long enough! But for our keepers it is pretty intensive. Before the show starts they have to put the birds from their cages behind the scenes into the starting cages out of sight of the visitors. During the actual presentation one of the two keepers is explaining what is happening to the public, while the other one is busy behind the scenes preparing the various birds for their appearance. After the show it may happen that birds that were “carried off by the wind” have to be found and caught. Our black kites often play on for some time after the visitors have gone. They also have to be collected. All in all quite a time-consuming event.
It is very important that the birds maintain their proper weight. Birds are like human beings: they are born tired. By maintaining their exact weight (they are being weighed every day!) they will stay in shipshape and eager to perform. When you slightly overfeed them they will not perform (however natural the trick). Slightly undernourishing them means a mild form of ill-treatment.
You may know that macaws are very intelligent animals. Before long they know exactly how to get their food (award) in an easier way than the keepers have contrived. They will not fly a wide circle but take a small circuit, the sly boots. The keepers have to prove once again that ‘man’ really is the most intelligent animal in the world and they have to invent a new scenario so that the macaws do have to fly the wide circle.
The free flight bird show is not only great fun for the visitors, it is also a continuous challence for the keepers. It will keep them sharp and healthy. And who are more suitable to give an explanation to the public than the birds’ own keepers.
translated article Blijdorp Blad 3 - fall 2009