NEI’s new show at the San Diego Zoo, SOAR: A Symphony in Flight, is in the last few days of training before the opening Saturday night.
I’m glad I watched the training last Saturday as well (blog post About to SOAR). There were far fewer opportunities to learn from birds who were giving them training challenges with new behaviors, in a new environment, at night. Everyone’s getting their part down. The teamwork of the trainers and staff is equally impressive. There are a lot of birds in this show, and almost all are cued off stage for behaviors they perform on the set or in the amphitheater. Right now there are no mechanized release cages, so all the entries and exits involve trainers as well.
One thing that struck me, which may seem trivial on its face, is how readily the birds enter their carriers. They are never shooed in, never forced in; it’s always a choice to walk in on their own. Clearly lots and lots of positive reinforcement there on a regular basis. Cool to see with such a tightly orchestrated show.
The other thing that’s very noticeable is how little voracity the birds show for their food rewards. With everything synced to music, video, sound and lighting effects, there isn’t much leeway for birds being reluctant to perform or wandering off script. Their diets are carefully designed to keep their weight in a good range for health and training, but when you see the birds working they don’t go after the food rewards all that rapidly when they’re offered, and their attention is definitely not focused on looking for it from the trainers. Many of them seem almost nonchalant about it. Also very cool to see in a show that demands such precise timing and which is on such a tight schedule for the opening. (Some of these birds only arrived from NEI’s Florida base two weeks ago.) It’s a wonderful demonstration of how weight is just one factor, and hunger doesn’t need to be very strong when there is a trusting relationship based on choice and not force.
The Green Winged Macaw at one of his stations on the set:
Pair of macaw butts stretching for treats:
Worker bees swarming the set:
Pair of very tired trainers waiting for Eurasian Eagle Owl to get set up.
[Hillary (standing) and Cari (collapsing).]
Many more photos in the Facebook album.
UPDATE: Show performance
I finally got over to see the show a week after its opening. It went very well and the audience loved it. They are combining parts of the planned night show (SOAR) and using parts of the day show in sections where the birds are still in training for the full SOAR program. It works seamlessly though, and if you didn’t know before hand which was which it would be very hard to tell.
After the show they let people stay if they want to watch them train, which is good for them (birds get more practice doing their routine in front of an audience) and pretty educational for the audience too. He explains what they’re doing as they train, and really stresses that they never make a bird do anything it doesn’t want to do, all R+. I wish more parrot owners could see that in action!