Jun 21

Steve Martin’s Natural Encounters Inc (NEI) is creating a beautiful new nighttime bird show for the San Diego Zoo, with an environmental theme set to music and visuals. The set with full sound and lighting is spectacular (got a brief view during some testing). Here’s a peak at some of the birds being trained for the night show.

condor and moonbeams

Me and my friend-in-forgetfulness Hillary (aka Tex, and NEI’s newest full-time trainer) both managed to forget our good cameras, so only the bigger birds and the ones trained before my iPhone ran out of juice made it in here. Over a very long evening, they also worked with several Eurasian Eagle Owls, two Keas, Blue Headed Macaws, a troop of rats, a pot-bellied pig, a 40-year-old American Fish Eagle, African White-necked Ravens, a flock of chickens, a rooster, and a pair of gorgeous Toucans. These show Steve training the Andean Condor (above) and the Maribou Stork with Wouter Stellard.

Steve and the senior trainers — Cari Clements, Dillon Holger, Lindsey Morse, Wouter — plus the other staff, certainly had their hands full. Some birds worked better than others, and usually the trainers were aware of potential problems before they happened. The level of difficulty and length of the training session appeared to be monitored very, very carefully, and no one was pushed even remotely near the danger zone. (Remember, this is training in a brand new environment, outdoors, at night, in the middle of a large city.) One of the important lessons I’ve learned for flying Carly in an urban area has been to be careful to never, ever knowingly push the safety zone. Knowing when NOT to go flying, or when to call it a day, is a crucial part of good training. So I found watching the training of the more challenging birds of the evening especially interesting. Not recognizing the limits essentially trains the bird for bad behavior by allowing an opportunity for competing reinforcers. (Once a bird settles in a nice tree there are no “do-overs.”)

Observing good trainers can be an education in itself: the ideas for solving problems, teamwork, different personal styles. But what I find most interesting is the clarity of the human-bird interaction when trainers are very focused and experienced in applying scientific training principles. Great opportunity to learn by example. Especially impressive when the trainers still have that focus after the fatigue of an already long day’s work and several intense weeks of preparation.

More fun pictures here. Hopefully some soon with a proper camera!

For more information about the show, see the San Diego Zoo site. There are also two daytime shows, at 2pm and 4pm. Opening is next weekend, June 27th (26th for zoo members).

For more information about NEI, see Natural Encounters, Inc. The “Press Room” area has some excellent articles on training and behavior, by the NEI staff and others. NEI also does week-long intensive training workshops for companion parrot owners once or twice per year.