The winged stars of a new show at the National Zoo got quite a buildup before taking to the air yesterday. Their talons are "their killing weapons," an announcer told the crowd, and their horned beaks can tear their prey apart.
"Remain seated. Do not put any hands up in the air," one trainer warned before a red-tailed hawk swooped low over a portion of the crowd during the 20-minute "Wings of America" show featuring a fearsome cast of birds of prey.
The show, making its first stop at the National Zoo, is part of a traveling exhibit put on by the American Eagle Foundation. Hundreds of people watched the first set of performances yesterday, anxiously looking skyward as the hawk and a black vulture took turns demonstrating their skills.
The shows continue today and tomorrow and then wind up with performances Wednesday through June 27. Showtimes all days are at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., on the zoo's Lion/Tiger Hill.
The foundation's trainers gave the audience a close-up look at other flying carnivores, including the bald eagle, golden eagle, peregrine falcon, great horned owl and mountain caracara. The highly trained North American raptors usually make their home at Dollywood, a theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where the nonprofit foundation is based.
The zoo is celebrating the American eagle this weekend with the shows as well as hawk demonstrations, bald eagle feedings, talks and other activities.
Michael McKenney, 13, hopped quickly to his feet when an audience volunteer was requested yesterday morning. He answered correctly when he said vultures eat carcasses in the wild. Then he eagerly donned a long, leather arm-sleeve to receive a black vulture, referred to as "the big, bad Buzz" by a trainer.
"He flew right on my arm," the Arlington teenager said, matter-of-factly. "The thing was, I really just kept my cool. I've been into animals ever since I was 2."
He was not frazzled even though Buzz has some pretty big claws.
"I was a little scared when he was about to fly on my arm 'cause he was a little unbalanced," Michael said later.
For the nine birds that entertained yesterday, it was business as usual. They are highly accustomed to being around people. The foundation's birds have performed more than 9,000 educational, free-flight birds of prey shows since 1991, said its president and chief executive, Al Louis Cecere.
"People have always been intrigued by birds of prey, by their power and their intelligence and their skill at hunting," Cecere said.
Despite their foreboding appearance, the birds appearing at the zoo have been classified as permanently non-releasable. Many are injured in ways that would hinder their preying abilities. Some have been so highly socialized by the humans who have cared for them that they would be unable to survive in the wild.
But they are not harmless and mostly were kept apart during the show. "Some of them, if they were to get too close together, wouldn't be very friendly," Cecere said. "Some falcons in the wild eat other falcons."
Not all of the birds featured yesterday are known for attacking with quick strikes of the claw. The American Kestrel, the smallest of the birds of prey, goes about its business in a different way.
"Kestrels don't have good eyesight," Adam Keniger, a trainer for the foundation, explained to the audience. But the birds compensate by employing their knack for spotting ultraviolet light, which is found in urine, Keniger said.
"Mice have very weak bladders," Keniger said. "To these guys in the sky, [mouse] urine is like a road map to their next meal."
Between stints before an audience, the predators dined on cow hearts, trout, quails and farm-raised, whole white mice -- meals they would hunt for in the wild, Cecere said.
After the show, a group of preschoolers crowded around "America," a bald eagle taken in by the foundation after it was shot in the right wing in Michigan years earlier. Jackson Todd, 5, of the District, proclaimed that bird his favorite.
"I like the bald eagle because it lives in America," Jackson said as he sipped a juice box after the show. "I like birds a lot."