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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Hawk Walk: Raptor Flight Practice

By Kirsten Pisto, Communications
Photos by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, unless otherwise noted

If you’ve visited the zoo during our Raptor Flight Program, you’ve seen our raptors demonstrate their skillful aerial maneuvers. Experts at flying over the crowd and returning safely to their trainer’s glove, the raptors are used to the oohs and ahhs of a large audience in the flight yard. These birds know the subtle signals of their flight trainers and are practiced at staying on task, even when the peskiest neighborhood crows taunt them from the treetops.

Lola gracefully glides between the trees, perfectly suited for quick maneuvering. 

As proficient as these raptors are, once in a while keepers put them to the test and try out fresh scenarios. This allows the birds to learn new skills as well as strengthen their instinct to return to their handlers during the free flights. By introducing new terrain, keepers have a good idea of how tuned in the birds are.

A quiet Friday afternoon with clear skies and a slight chill in the air makes for perfect test flight conditions. Winter is a great time for testing our raptor flight loops, since guest traffic on the paths is quite minimal during the low season. Keepers can focus on the birds while a few lucky zoo goers can watch without interfering in the training.

We shadowed raptor keepers Gretchen Albrecht and Susan Burchardt last Friday as they “walked” the birds.

Turkey vulture, Modoc, patrols the path just outside the Raptor Barn. Lookin' good, Mo! Keeper, Gretchen Albrecht, and volunteer,  Dan, watch patiently as the oldest member of the Raptor Center stretches his legs.

First up was our turkey vulture, Modoc, who did literally walk alongside his keepers. Leaving the raptor barn, Modoc took a leisurely stroll up the main loop path towards the Northern Trail. Mo is the oldest member of the Raptor Center’s educational team. He will be 30 years old in April! He is an ambassador for all vultures around the world, so he has an important job. While Mo was gently persuaded by bites of tasty meat bits, he waddled in line with his keepers and mostly ignored any passersby, although he did give our camera a special look. Although this time he stuck to a stroll, Mo can be seen flying, circling and showing off his signature recycling behavior as part of the Raptor Flight Program.

Next up was Lola, our beautiful Aplomado falcon. This species ranges from Northern Mexico to South America and are skilled aerial hunters. These birds are wicked fast; they often prey on smaller birds so their pursuit flight skills must be spot on. Lola has been training with her keepers at Woodland Park Zoo since 2011 and together they have mastered some amazing flight maneuvers. On this walk, Lola was asked to fly between two trees from one keeper to another. 

Lola glides through the narrow opening of two conjoined trees near the raptor yard. Of course, it was much easier for her than for our photographer, who had to time his shutter at exactly the right moment. Lucky for us, our photographer is pretty skilled too!

Lola also practices some of her signature dive attacks. One keeper calls Lola to the back of the flight
yard while the other keeper tosses a small bit of meat into the air. This way Lola has to dive to catch the treat. It all happens so fast and gracefully that it’s hard to imagine any creature being able to outmaneuver her.

Throughout Lola’s flight training it is clear she is focused on her keepers. Both Susan and Gretchen are privy to a gentle high-pitched screech. Lola is quite vocal and this screech is a sign of affection as well as a cue that means she wouldn’t mind a few more treats. Susan explains that Lola really benefits from this one-on-one keeper training. She is very reward-oriented and enjoys the flight challenges keepers present to her.  

Lola is a very polite bird, waiting patiently for a few treats while her keepers keep an eye on how she interacts with new people. 

Since this walk around the zoo is new to Lola, she is especially attentive to where her keepers are at all times. As Gretchen and Susan stroll south along the main loop path to the lion statue, Lola flits and darts along signage and overhead branches, always just a short flight away. We stop at a bench, so Lola can practice eating out of a hand other than her keepers’. This encourages her ease around new people, all part of establishing boundaries and assessing recall measurement (returning to keepers no matter who is holding the treats). As Lola gently takes the last piece of liver out of my hand she is called to navigate “home,” which means her keepers glove.

Lola is a very well-trained bird, and eager to work with her trainers. She nailed each prompt she was given, a testament to the hard work and dedication of the raptor keepers.

With Lola back in the raptor yard, keepers introduced us to Gunner, a commanding male red-tailed hawk.

Gunnar takes a break from flight school. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Gunnar first performs a sort of low swooping flight over the raptor fence. As Susan stands in the center of the flight yard, Gretchen sets up a temporary perch out on the main loop path, a short distance from the perimeter of the flight yard. Gretchen calls Gunnar and he launches off Susan’s glove, dips low and then sort of rises up just enough to clear the fence, landing with a swoosh of air onto the saddle perch. Gunnar is a large bird, and his wingspan looks enormous as he comes in for landing.

After a few test flights to the perch, Susan calls Gunnar to come play with his squirrel lure line. Lures are an important part of training a raptor to safely free fly. The lure usually represents the raptor’s natural prey. Susan explains that, “flying to a lure is a lot more fun than flying to a trainer’s glove so a lure is often used when a raptor has gone off course and is perched in an unfamiliar location where it may be uncomfortable.” Gunnar is having no problem returning to his keepers today though. He is so devoted to Susan that when she tries to lure him to the squirrel toy he swoops down and lands on her glove for a little rest, then promptly hops down onto the squirrel. Not quite the ferocious hawk attack she was going for, but he receives a treat for participation.

Susan and Cisco scope out the main loop path.

The last hawk to take a “walk” is our Harris's hawk, Cisco. Cisco likes to fly further from the keepers than the first couple of birds. He flies higher overhead and tends to perch on large branches where he can get a good view of the entire space. Gretchen and Susan walk south together on the outer loop path and Cisco lets them get all the way past the Adaptations Building before he catches up by soaring through the treetops. It may not look like it, but Cisco is very much following their lead. As Susan reaches an open space she holds her glove up and Cisco swoops down onto her arm, a perfect landing. 

Cisco zooming between trees while flying from one keeper's glove to the other's.

From here, Susan and Gretchen take turns passing Cisco from arm to arm. He is focused, but does make a quick stop at a nearby branch to check out some crows. When Susan sees this, she knows it’s time for the lure, and out comes the squirrel toy. Instinctively, Cisco jets away from the trees and onto the lawn where he grabs the lure. “Good job, buddy” says Susan. She lets him wrestle the lure for a moment before trading it in for a treat.

Proudly displaying the squirrel lure he's caught, Cisco looks to his keepers for his next move.

The hawk walkers then head back to the Raptor Center with Cisco flying overhead. A few visitors stop to watch him soar above them, a special view for those who happen to be at the zoo on a winter afternoon.

Art can really give you a new perspective; Cisco scopes out the zoo from atop the lion statue. 

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