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Hawk's in No Mood to Fly : He Sticks to His Perch but Zoo's Show Goes On

August 22, 1986|PENELOPE McMILLAN | Times Staff Writer

Sundance the hawk sat on a balcony railing in the Glendale Galleria. And sat. And sat.

"This is a natural behavior show," Los Angeles Zoo keeper Duffy Wade said, with a forced laugh, into the microphone on the stage below. Beside her, an assistant whistled for Sundance's attention.

An audience of about 150 shoppers had gathered Thursday to see the debut performance at the mall of the zoo's "World of Birds" show, and soon about half of the crowd, trying to help, was whistling at Sundance too.

"That's not necessary," Wade, the 29-year-old lead keeper who trains the birds, told the crowd in a doggedly cheerful voice. "Believe it or not, this is one of our most reliable birds."

Sundance, a 2-year-old Harris hawk, was supposed to fly from the railing and catch a leather pouch, called a lure, as it was thrown from the stage. Instead of demonstrating its natural ability to catch "prey" in midair, the bird demonstrated a desire to sit and watch.

Persuading wild birds to perform on cue is essentially a daily lesson in patience, Wade said.

"You can't use force," she explained later. "You can't use any negative reinforcement. So it's just a matter of waiting it out."

About six of the 20 "World of Birds" regulars performed at the Galleria Thursday--two macaws that fly in formation, a parrot and cockatoo that talk or do tricks, a black-legged seriema, a South American bird, showing how it "tenderizes" the prey he catches by pounding a rubber alligator against a rock--and of course, Sundance.

Several of the show's attractions did not travel to the mall. A king vulture, wary of glass and mirrors, stayed home, as did the Andean condors, which at the zoo usually fly off a hill several hundred yards from the stage to show off their 10-foot wingspans. They are "unaccepting of new situations," Wade said. The condor is "a real sensitive bird," she said, easily "upset."

People and noise don't bother the birds, she said. "As part of their training from the beginning, we worked with all kinds of distractions. If there were jackhammers going from zoo construction, we'd go ahead."

Even though the birds' wings are unclipped and they could try to escape, they never have, Wade said. "The birds are so keyed in to us." Because of the "trusting relationship" built up over time, she and other zoo staffers become the birds' "security" no matter what's going on, she explained.

The birds also all get "treats"--sunflower seeds for the macaws and parrot, dead mice for the hawks and mealworms for the seriema.

Mistrusted Footing

The crowd, even those pressed quite close at the balcony railing, did not seem to bother Sundance, for example, but the smooth surface of the railing apparently did. Wade later said the hawk did not trust its footing enough to use it for a take-off point.

Wade, a Reseda resident who has worked at the zoo for seven years, decided to forgo the lure trick--for this and future mall shows, she said later--and bring the bird down. A reward given just the same, Sundance was retired to her crate.

The 20-minute show was taken "on the road" mostly for promotional purposes, zoo officials said, and also as an entertaining way to teach people about birds, since 70% of all birds in the wild never reach a year of age, largely due to loss of habitat and hunting.

"If people can see them up close, maybe they'll remember the next time they see it in the wild and not shoot," Wade said.

Most show performers were "recruited" from the zoo grounds, she explained. "Either they were not in a breeding situation or weren't compatible with others of their kind." Others, like the hawks, were bred in captivity and hand-raised, or, like the macaws and parrot, were donated by disgruntled pet owners.

Training, Wade said, is a "very slow process," taking two to three months on the average. "It's based on positive reinforcement, getting the birds used to us, accepting that no harm is going to come to them," she explained. "You get them to step on our hand, then hop on the hand, then fly to us and just keep lengthening the distances. . . . We haven't lost a bird yet."

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