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Doug Robinson: The Birdman of Utah

Published: Sunday, Aug. 31 2014 10:00 p.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, Sept. 2 2014 7:12 a.m. MDT

A white-necked raven puts $20 into Steve Chindgren's pocket as he presents the World of Flight bird show at Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. The raven then delivered the $20 into a nearby donation box.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — How good is Steve Chindgren’s World of Flight bird show at Hogle Zoo? So good that the neighbors climb to the top of 30-foot poles every day to watch it over the fence. Even orangutans enjoy the entertainment.

It’s so good that two to three times a day, more than 300 times a year, people begin lining up 45 minutes before the show just to get in. It’s so good that it’s lasted 20 years — 34 if you count Chindgren’s years at Tracy Aviary — and what other show can make that claim? It’s so good that 140,000 people saw the show in one year — the equivalent of filling Rice-Eccles Stadium three times, with 10,000 left over.

The 63-year-old Chindgren is ringmaster of a free-flight show that is as carefully choreographed as the Blue Angels. The stars of the show are eagles, falcons, hawks, owls and parrots, co-starring dozens of white doves and other supporting actors. It’s a 25-minute variety show, featuring interviews and comic relief with parrots and raptors dive-bombing the crowd and buzzing the audience so low that spectators feel the birds' talons or the rush of wind stir their hair as the birds pass.

Chindgren, owner, creator, trainer, caretaker, scriptwriter and head of the search and rescue (more on that later), is in the middle of it all.

“I try to make it better every year, but when you’ve been doing it this long, it’s hard,” says Chindgren, who believes he owns the longest-running live performance show of any kind in Utah.

In many ways, Chindgren has come full circle. He grew up in Emigration Canyon, four miles from the zoo. As a boy, he saw a hawk in his back yard and was smitten. He began reading anything he could find about birds of prey and became a regular visitor to the zoo and its collection of hawks, which were kept in cages behind the elephant enclosure. One day he was spotted by Gerald deBary, the director of the zoo.

“You really like those hawks, don’t you?” he said to Chindgren. “If you were bigger, I’d give you one. If I get one your size, I’ll call you.”

Chindgren gave the man his phone number, and weeks later deBary called and gave him a sparrow hawk (now called an American kestrel). The zoo director continued to mentor the boy and his interest in birds until 1964, when deBary was bitten on the finger by a puff adder; he became sick and slowly died.

“I still think about him,” says Chindgren. “It’s pretty cool that the director of a zoo would befriend a kid.”

Later, Chindgren would also acquire a red-tailed hawk, a great horned owl, a Cooper's hawk and magpies. The birds flew around his house or free in the yard. Sometimes they would disappear and they would either return on their own or he would search for them and bring them home. When he rode his bike, his birds flew in his wake. If he spotted “his” magpie in the canyon he would call to it and it would fly to him.

He discovered falconry in an encyclopedia, and his life’s hobby was begun.

“I saw it and said, ‘I’m doing that,’ ” he recalls. “I went to every library in town looking for something on falconry.”

He found a falconry book by King Frederick II, for $20. He picked apricots in his grandmother’s orchard and sold them door-to-door to earn the money.

“People would ask what I was going to do with the money,” he says. “I told them, ‘I’m gonna buy a book.’ It didn’t take long to raise the money. I bought the book and a bike, and I still have that book.”

He didn’t understand much of what was in the book so he sought other falconers in the area to pick their brains on the subject.

“There weren’t many of them,” he recalls. “Maybe three.”

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