'Talons!' show promises spectators a 'unique and mystical' experience

| Thursday, May 16, 2013, 7:32 p.m.

Gandolf climbed atop a stage setting, checked the audience out with his orange eyes, spread his long wings, and swooped right over people's heads to the other side of the National Aviary's indoor theater, where the squawking Eurasian eagle owl's female counterpart was waiting.

Then, it was X's turn: She lifted off the ledge, soared over the audience, and landed on the stage.

To spectators sitting in the Helen M. Schmidt FliteZone Theater, this will look even cooler when the new “Talons!” show officially opens next week. The portion featuring the nocturnal owls happens inside a dark theater, with a background lit screen showing a forest scene. This will give visitors a “unique and mystical” experience, says Cathy Schlott, manager of animal training for the North Side aviary.

“You get a sense of an owl flying over your head at nighttime, when they would be out,” she says. “The birds really are flying all around you. It's an experience you won't get anywhere else.”

The purpose of “Talons!” — besides entertaining aviary visitors — is teaching them about birds of prey, including owls, Lanner falcons and vultures.

People often associate carnivorous birds with fear, death and aggression. Yet, birds of prey — who eat animals like rodents and other small mammals, lizards, and small birds — play an important role in the world's ecosystems and food chains, aviary officials say.

During the show, which will play twice daily, visitors will see the live bird actors, along with a backing screen showing visuals. Human performers in the show will speak to the audience about the birds they train, and compare the foreign birds — like Amut, a Lanner falcon whose species is native mostly to Africa — to local birds, like the Peregrine falcons that roost atop the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning.

Other birds in “Talons!” include African hooded vultures, which Schlott calls nature's recyclers who eliminate carcasses.

“These guys are amazing,” she says. “They go and clean up after the world.”

Trainers take several months to prepare birds for a new show, and they use positive reinforcement with food to motivate the birds, Schlott says. They're not so different from us: Watch how people quickly congregate if you announce you have a cake to share.

Visitors will love learning about the exotic birds and seeing them up close, says aviary spokeswoman Robin Weber.

The show “takes you from your backyard to the world,” she says.

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at kgormly@tribweb.com or 412-320-7824.

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