Wild black kites are becoming a bit of a nuisance at a free-flight bird show in Alice Springs, turning up to the shows hoping for a free feed.
- Alice Springs Desert Park holds a bird show twice a day in which food is used to coax the park’s birds into demonstrating their behaviours
- Recently wild black kites, which are a type of raptor, have been gatecrashing the show after discovering the free food source
- The bird trainers say that although some of their birds can be a bit intimidated by this, they are trained to fly home to their aviary if feeling unsafe
The birds of prey are in high numbers around the town due to a prolonged dry period.
“It’s a good way of doing it [getting food] out here,” Alice Springs Desert Park bird trainer Angus Newey said.
“You just sit around, conserve your energy, and nick someone else’s hard-earned food.”
The twice-daily bird show, held against the backdrop of the West MacDonnell Ranges, is a popular event for tourists.
Presenters introduce a range of birds common in Central Australia, including a black-breasted buzzard, owls, a magpie and a falcon.
Using food used as an incentive, they are coaxed into demonstrating behaviours including bird calls and falconry techniques.
But watching every move are the wild kites who turn up to every show, and swoop and ‘barrel dive’ to get at the treats.
Spectators often can’t tell the difference between the show birds and the wild ones, says trainer Angus Newey. (Supplied: Alice Springs Desert Park)
The kites, which are raptors, or birds of prey, have even been known to attempt to steal food directly off a handler’s glove with the show’s wedge-tailed eagle just seconds away.
“Kites aren’t fast like a falcon or strong like an eagle, they’re just canny and pretty mean, that’s their niche,” Mr Newey said.
“They just bully and intimidate and pirate.”
It is not only the wild black kites that are turning up to the bird show, there are also wedge-tailed eagles who fly down from high up in the ranges.
“They can be a bit intimidating for the rest of the birds because they’re the kings basically, they’re the biggest and the baddest,” Mr Newey said.
“They’re quite territorial with our eagles sometimes and we have to keep that in mind when we’re flying our eagle in dangerous airspace.”
Interruptions all part of the show
The interactions between the wild birds and the show birds is part of the overall experience and can sometimes even help keep the bird show on track.
“Once our magpie had found a dead finch during a show and was flying away with his prize,” Mr Newey said.
“A black kite did a barrel roll, swooped in and made him drop it, which meant the magpie came back and did the rest of his job!
“The audience love it when things don’t go to plan … often they can’t tell the difference between our birds and the real ones.”
The man who set up the original bird show at the desert park in the late ’90s says the presence of the kites is nothing new.
Zookeeper Dave Irwin, now based in South Australia, said there were times when up to 100 kites a day would be circling during the show.
“It didn’t take them long to figure out we had food there,” Mr Irwin said.
“We had our regulars of about a dozen, but sometimes if a thermal came over from the rubbish dump … there could be 50 or 100 kites in that thermal.”
The show birds will fly back to their aviary if the wild black kites intimidate them too much. (Supplied: Alice Springs Desert Park)
Mr Irwin said the kites were incredibly aerobatic and could pull off some pretty slick manoeuvres to pilfer a feed.
“They’ll fold up, dive quite steeply and then slip in underneath the bird that they think has got the food and do a rollover and try and snatch it,” he said.
“Then they’ll fluff their feathers out on their belly … [hide] the food up in their feathers and fly around making out they have nothing.”
If any of the show birds feel unsafe, they know it is ok to go ‘home’ to the aviary, a short distance away from the amphitheatre.
“Our magpie was a bit put off by the kites this morning … his feathers tucked in a bit and he looked a bit nervous so I sent him home,” Mr Newey said.
“Sometimes they swoop the barn owl and the little boobook and if they don’t feel safe, they’ll just go home, we don’t force them to do anything.”