The birds of prey made their last majestic swoops over the desert on Sunday, April 20, during the season finale for the “Raptor Free-Flight” show of the season at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.
The raptors that star in the show always get the summer off, when many of them molt and grow new feathers. Not to mention the fact that like many summertime desert denizens, they prefer to perch when the temperatures soar.
First some background on raptors. A raptor is a carnivorous bird of prey, and there about 500 species. Raptors can either be diurnal (active during the day) like a hawk or falcon, or they can be nocturnal, like owls. Raptors have strong talons. The force that comes from the swooping attack has the ability to kill prey upon impact. The strength and sharpness of the talons allow raptors to hold onto prey and fly off with ease. Raptors also have sharp hooked beaks that they use to both eat and kill prey. For example, falcons are known to use their beaks to break the spinal cord of an unfortunate critter they target for a meal. All raptors also have very keen eyesight that allows them to spot that next meal from high in the sky.
So why doesn’t the museum’s popular show go on in the summer? Simple, explained Tim May, a volunteer trainer: “It’s too hot. The raptors have no motivation” to do the free flight in blazing desert heat. Free-flight means these raptors are completely uninhibited when they fly; there is no enclosure or restraint, so the raptors take to the skies without restriction. They’re trained, of course — but when they fly, these raptors are making all of their own decisions.
During the Raptor Free-Flight, visitors are only a few feet away from many different species of majestic birds of prey. As you stand between railings, raptors like the Harris hawk, prairie falcon, and great horned owl fly back, forth and around you, within inches of your head.
“You can almost feel the feathers,” said Roxy Roth, a tourist from Chicago. “They perch so close to you, you can see all their colors and details.”
The free flight show is amazing to visitors. “Since they are flying free, you can see their natural behavior, and see them eat,” said Lori Navrotzke who came back to see the show for a second time. Navrotzke said, “It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.” The birds eat because trainers at times leave a little piece of food on the perches where they fly back and forth, giving the raptors increased incentive to stay close by.
A Polish couple who declined to give their last names, Iwona and Piotrek, who came to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum to see the mountain lions, said they were delighted to stumble upon the free flight show. “Wow, I never thought the birds would get so close,” said Iwona. “Very cool,” said Piotrek.
Wally Hestermann, a raptor trainer, said, “You won’t see the way we fly our raptors anywhere else in the U.S.” He said the birds, given their sharp vision, even respond while high in the sky to trainers’ hand-signals — usually a simple wide left-to-right overhead wave — on the ground.
Hestermann explained why he loves his job. “My relationship with the animals, hands down,” he said.
When running a show during gusty wind, Hestermann said there is nothing quite like seeing a raptor “trust humans and the good thing they have” by fighting to stay here and not flying away but instead returning to him. A raptor is not a very social animal, and rarely do they exhibit relationships with humans.
“ The 20-minute Raptor Free Flight show takes place twice a day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and there is no additional cost to view the show. The Raptor Free Flight will resume in the fall. Other raptors that fly in the show include the Chihuahuan raven, ferruginous hawk, red-tailed Hawk, grey hawk, common barn owl, and the peregrine falcon.