New Aviary Show Highlights Misunderstood Birds of Prey

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You’ll see some spectacular stuff in Talons!, the new indoor free-flight show at the National Aviary. If you’re lucky, you might even get buzzed by a Eurasian Eagle-Owl, a cat-sized bird with deep orange eyes.

There’s also the super-fast Lanner falcon, snapping snacks out of mid-air. And it’s all backed up by the Aviary’s professional trainers and custom-designed lights, sound and video.

One specific goal of Talons!, however, is to rehabilitate the image of the vulture. These birds, thought homely by most, come by their association with death honestly. They are scavengers, after all.

But as the Aviary’s manager of animal training, Cathy Schlott, noted yesterday at a press preview for the show, vultures also play a vital role in their ecosystems, which of course also usually include human beings.

Vultures, she said, are “one of the most misunderstood birds in the world.”

In recent years, they’ve found out just how important vultures are in India, Pakistan, Nepal and other Asian countries. There, vulture populations have declined precipitously — by more than 99 percent in India alone — mostly because ranchers were feeding their cattle an anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac. Dead cattle are key vulture fare, and diclofenac is deadly to vultures.

The result has been more anthrax and rabies, which are transmitted by the corpses, but to which vultures are immune. As vultures died, populations of rats and feral dogs exploded to fill the niche. And corpses that once would have been consumed by vultures were left to pollute water supplies.

The Aviary’s hooded vultures are actually native to Africa. But raising awareness is among the show’s missions. The resurgence of bald eagles in the U.S. is a good example, says, Schlott. The bird, near-extinct by 1970, rebounded after DDT was banned.

“That’s the model story,” says Schlott. These days, you can even find a nesting pair in Pittsburgh.

(In fact, some Asian nations have banned diclofenac, and there’s recent evidence vulture populations have bottomed out.)

Meanwhile, in Talons!, giant projected images of the vulture’s bald, wrinkly head, accompanied by a soundtrack of majestic choral music, might make you suspect the Aviary of trying to make the species a big a star as our only nominally bald national symbol.

Talons! is being shown in preview performances starting today, at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily through Fri., May 24. Tickets are $5 in addition to the Aviary’s usual admission fee of $11-13

The show formally opens May 25. The Aviary is located at 700 Arch St., on the North Side.

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