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Have a nice flight

George J. Reclos, John Reclos & Eva Stets - Vithoulka

Attical Zoological Park (AZP for short) is something unique in Athens - in many ways. There have been some other efforts in the past but they resulted in very poor living conditions for the animals so I will call AZP the only zoo available to Greeks. The zoo was built by Mr. Lesueur who had the vision, the will and the means to bring this kind of project to an end. The zoo occupies a surface of 128.000 square meters and is located near to Athens (location "Yalou", at Spata, very close to the international airport). The animals kept in this zoo are in prime shape and breeding is not rare. On the contrary, they have managed to breed many animals (including brown bears) and it is always nice to search below the trees or in the nests to find the newcomers. The organization is very good and the information for the visitor plenty, if he takes the time to read the signs and tables. The zoo keeps one of the largest collection of birds worldwide with 304 different species. Some of them are displayed here and in the following pages.

In short, the zoo has a collection of 28 reptile species and 46 mammal species (apart from the 204 bird species), which means that you will always find something interesting. These figures change all the time since new species are added. Visitors have learned about it and come back again and again with their friends and families. Figures speak for themselves. There had been 45.000 visitors in 2000, 105.000 in 2001, 140.000 in 2002, 179.000 in 2003 and 211.000 in 2004. As far as I can see, 2005 will definitely set a new record. During the last couple of years, publicity about this park starts to build up both on the TV as well as in a number of publications. The Prime Minister of Greece is also a regular visitor with his wife and two children.

I have been visiting the zoo very regularly during the last couple of years and have seen it growing every month. One of the last additions was a free flight show of birds of prey which was announced in the summer and sounded too good to be true. On October 16, 2005 I called them to find out if the show was running and I was happy to learn that the run it daily at 14:00. I went there on time, got a place for me and my cameras and waited to see what they had accomplished. Needless to say, I was nicely surprised to see six different species performing flights that day. I got some pictures but I wanted more... More pictures and more information about the show. A week later I was accepted by Mr. Lesueur (after an appointment which was arranged by Mrs. Kandarelou, his executive assistant) and we had a discussion about the success of this project and, most important, the things behind the scenes that made it possible. The interview lasted a bit over 20 minutes and the important issues are listed below.

A Spotted Eagle Owl (Bubo africanus) goes for the stand

When and how did this idea come to you?

The idea was part of the initial project. When the park was planned, a free flight show was included already. Unfortunately, there were many things that needed to be taken care of at the beginning so the project was delayed for sometime but now it is running OK.

Whose idea was it ?

In this respect, mine. As said, this idea was incorporated it in the plans of the park. At the initial stages, this park was an ornithology park with many bird species so, this plan made a lot of sense. The other species (mammals, reptiles, amphibians) were added later on.

Which were the steps you had to take before the show started ?

Two persons from Eagle Heights in Kent, UK which is specialized in this kind of show and training came to AZP and stayed for 8 days here to train the persons who would then become our own bird trainers. After some time, one of them visited Eagle Heights and stayed there for 20 more days. Following that, two persons from Eagle Heights came again to AZP, bringing the birds this time, and spent some more time to set the basis of what we see now as a free flight show. The people at Eagle Heights know their job very well and their own show is fantastic. I have seen a vulture taking a 10 minute flight covering a huge distance before getting back to its trainer.

How many birds take part in the show?

Fourteen birds, all born and raised in captivity were selected. Four of them were born in AZP, one came from EKPAZ in Aegina (along with three more) and the rest were brought in from UK (Eagle Heights).

A Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus) follows its trainer, Marianna Psaradeli

Which species of birds?

A Spotted Eagle Owl (Bubo africanus), a marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus), a barn owl (Tyto alba), a Bateleur Eagle (Terathopius ecaudatus), a hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus), a Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus), a Harris hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) and more.

How long does the training period last for such a bird?

It depends on the bird but a minimum of three months is required initially although usually it takes about five months. Female birds are more obedient than males so they are the ones which participate in the show now, while the males are trained separately after the show till they become obedient enough to take part in it. This process requires a lot of patience by the trainers since they have to do the same things again and again till it becomes a routine for the bird. Even then, the birds need to be exercised on a daily basis so they don't "forget" their training. Some of the birds which participate in the show are still juveniles - even their plumage doesn't show their final coloration yet - so they will become better with age.

A Eurasian Griffon gets the reward from the hands of its trainer (Mirka Koutsouri) after the flight.

Which are the difficulties during training them?

Some of them will not focus on the flight show but will be distracted by anything else going around them. Some of them prove to be too lazy to participate.

How many trainers do you have and where do they come from?

They are four people from our own staff, who are in contact with the people at Eagle Height.

A Harris hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) starts its flight. The harmony associated with the flight of this bird is really amazing.

How difficult is it to keep those birds in top-notch condition for the show?

They are trained daily by running a show once a day and there are plans to make it twice daily. The birds are weighted before the show to make sure they are not overweight. Daily exercise and training along with good feeding is the elements which keep those birds in prime conditions. That apart, the show itself may change as there are thoughts for expanding the range of flight for some birds which have an interesting type of flight, like the vultures. For them, we even think of transferring the bird in a nearby hill (I would say about 1000 m from the AZP) and release it from there so people can see the use of the anodic air currents and the "motionless" type of flight of this bird. We already present birds with a different kind of flight so we can tell the spectators some things about it and how it correlates with the way the bird hunts in its natural habitat.

A Eurasian Griffon named Tweetie, looks at the hands of its trainer very carefully to see where the reward is.

It is said that humans and raptors don't make good friends, is this true?

On the contrary, predatory birds were the first to be trained for this kind of use, by ancient Greeks or Arabs many years ago. Since they are built to seek for prey it is somewhat easier to start with them. Their flight is also more interesting. You can also train parrots but their flight mode is completely different. In this respect, you can see parrots in shows pushing a basket on wheels but - usually - not in flight. The parrot will make one flight and that's it. In contrast, a raptor's flight is far more interesting in many ways. First, the bird is more impressive in flight. Second, the flight itself contains elements which make it far more entertaining, like stooping or change course in mid-air, use of the warm anodic streams to stay aloft without spending energy and many more.

A hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus) male (named Gonzo) being trained with the rope.

Could you describe the trainer - bird relationship?

It is a no-fear relationship. The bird trusts the trainer and it knows that if it does things correctly, it will be rewarded. Unlike circus animals, for which there is a penalty (using pain or other means like hunger, thirst etc) for any failure, in this training they use the positive approach which is a reward for every successful flight. The trainers will spend 15 minutes with each and every bird daily while some times this may be expanded to 30 minutes per bird.

Which species was the fastest learner and which was the "difficult" case ?

The barn owl (Tyto alba) is too lazy to participate in this show. The progress made was really very limited and it is thought that if there is nothing spectacular coming from this bird in the future, it will be withdrawn from the flight show or will be used to open it, as an exhibit. Another tough one is the Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) which will need a lot of time till it can enter the flight show. The easiest one was the hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus) female which was really quick in adapting to the needs of the program.

A barn owl (Tyto alba), proudly presents its trainer !

What are your future plans, not necessarily restricted to the flight Show?

The next step is to be the creation of Oceanopolis, a large complex of aquariums housing Mediterranean species and Lessepsian immigrants. This will be built next to the AZP since the normal bureaucracy didn't allow this to happen in the place initially chosen for it. A place of 52.000 sq. meters has already been allocated for it and work will start soon. The plans are already made by a French company which specialized in the creation of public aquariums and specifically in Mediterranean ones and - hopefully - will open its gates to the public in the spring of 2006. This project, according to Mr. Lesseur, is not restricted to a show of fishes in glass tanks but an education trip for everybody. Show and spectacle should be combined with the necessary information so that the visitors get something from their visit. However, this will be another article.

This Bateleur Eagle (Terathopius ecaudatus) is still not ready to participate in the show but it is pretty close to it.

Other comments..

He was happy to give this interview and he is positive that this flight show will become even better in the future. Just one day before this interview, the Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus) vulture made a much longer flight leaving the area of the small theatre, going round the trees and then coming back while Harris hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) got the bait in mid-air. He is not sure if the longer duration will work pro or against the show since he is not convinced that the people would prefer to see more and stay focused on the show. He thinks that perhaps they can run the same 20 minute show twice during the weekends so more people can enjoy it but not prolonging it. As far as I learned from the trainers there, the birds will be tied to a rope during the first period of training. This rope (still used in some of the males) will be removed once the bird will come and rest on the arm of the trainer after the flight and not on one of the stands. During the training course, we did see those males landing on the stands and refusing to use the trainer's arm but some of them gave me the impression that it won't be long before they do it. Future plans exist and only time will tell when they will materialize. According to Mr. Lesueur: "There is already a "take the bait" part in the show using a Harris hawk (see photos below) and soon we will add more. This part is interesting for the spectators who can see the rapid reactions of a real hunter in the air but it is also good for the bird itself. After all, you have to take into account that those birds were born and raised in captivity and don't have the faintest idea how to hunt. This kind of exercise aims in sharpening their responses and improving their abilities. We think that in the future we may also add an artificial bait which will be moved by us in order to allow the bird to exercise its attach on a moving target. We don't know yet how this will be accomplished technically but we are thinking of this project"

The Eusasian Griffon resting on the hand of its trainer. This is the male bird

Perhaps the highlight of this flight show is when the female Harris hawk tries to catch a bait in mid air. The distance is too short for the bird to make the maneuver it would like to do but usually it manages to catch it. In the top photo the hawk has already started to bring its body in a vertical position so it can turn upside down (second photo) and grab the food with its feet. The whole thing takes less than a second and you can just see it roughly with your eyes. Only a camera at high speed can reveal this kind of detail. The two photos shown above were shot by John and George almost at the same time. We were lucky that there is a slight time difference between the two shots, so you can admire the skills of this predator. When the hawk lands, it will use its wings to create a hood over its pray, so that other birds can't see it. This is a characteristic of some raptors.

If you have time during the weekend, visiting the AZP could be a nice idea. Taking your camera with you may make this idea even better. Visiting the free flight show may make it an unforgettable experience.

Further information can be found at Eagle Heights' website

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