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.”
In those days, his falconry consisted of spending hours lying in a tree beside his hawk, waiting for it to attack a rodent or snake, and when it did he scrambled down the tree to see what it had found.
Chindgren and his friends searched the canyon to capture hawks to raise and train, which is illegal nowadays. But they were already little conservationists with their own set of ethics: If there was only one egg in a nest, they left it. If there were three, they would take one. Chindgren didn’t know it then, but he was training for his life’s work.
“We had to learn how to feed them,” says Chindgren. “We learned they needed a natural diet — whole mice, not beef hearts. My kestrel died after four years (because of a poor diet), but we learned. I’ve never had a sick bird in 20 years and never had one die except one killed by a golden eagle.”
His interest in birds led to a job at Tracy Aviary in Liberty Park, and four years later, on his own initiative and without official sanction, he started a bird show after seeing one in California. He built a small arena himself, largely by “thinning out” city benches and moving them to the aviary. The show was such a success that the aviary began charging admission. The show ran for 14 years until the city privatized the operation of the aviary and released its employees.
Chindgren took his act to Hogle Zoo, where his shows attracted so many people that the bleachers couldn’t hold them all and some were forced to sit on the grass and dirt. Eventually, the zoo converted a deer enclosure into a bird arena with tiered, permanent seating.
Chindgren’s shows run for five months, from May through September, twice daily during the week and thrice Friday through Sunday, although he turns over the ringmaster job to assistants for several of the shows. Many of his assistants have been working with him for years. That includes Nick Harris, who has been with him for 15 years, and Chindgren’s daughter Jena, who began assisting her father at the age of 7 and returned to work for him after graduating from the University of Utah with a degree in health.
“I decided I didn’t want to leave,” she says. “I love it.”
After a recent show, Chindgren sat in the stands to unwind.
“It looks easy,” he says of the show. “It isn’t. It’s intense.”
Most of the difficult work is done behind the scenes caring for and training the birds. Chindgren is a self-taught trainer and caretaker.
“Understanding animals correctly is the key to training. Some people have that ability to understand animals. I am lucky to have that," he says. "I have to sit there for hours with these birds to train them. I use positive reinforcement. A bird in the wild isn’t moving if it isn’t hunting. They soar sometimes for pleasure, but they have wings to hunt. So we use that same principle to feed them as a reward for flight behaviors. It takes years sometimes to get them ready for the show.”
Some of the birds have been with Chindgren since he came to the zoo 20 years ago and most have been with him about 15 years. The birds are weighed daily and their diets closely monitored. Fat, sedentary birds don’t want to hunt food, which is necessary for the show.
“My birds are healthy,” he says. “A lot of them can outfly birds in the wild.”
The show usually goes smoothly, but there have been glitches, namely, birds that take to the sky and don’t return, which can be triggered by spectators making sudden, unanticipated moves ("The public is the wild card," Chindgren says). Chindgren, who has attached radio transmitters to the raptors, goes to great lengths to retrieve his birds.
He once tracked one of his missing lanner falcons high in the mountains east of Salt Lake City and was closing in on it just as the sun set. He spent a cold night on the mountain, wearing shorts and straddling a pine tree on a cliff. His wife called search and rescue, but when he saw the searchers' flashlights coming up the mountainside he shouted down to them that he was OK and waved them off.
“I didn’t want them to spook the bird that I had worked so hard to find,” he says. “My wife was not happy about it.”
The next morning he found the bird, or what was left of it. It had been eaten by a golden eagle.
Another lanner also went AWOL. Chindgren tracked it to Coalville, Utah, where he came within 10 yards of stumbling into a cougar that was stalking a moose. He also spent the night on a golf course to retrieve a bird. Sometimes the lost birds fly to his arm when they see him. Others, such as owls, require hours of waiting until they leave their perch in a tree to get water, allowing Chindgren to catch them with a net.2 comments on this story
If Chindgren loses the electronic signal, it means the bird has exceeded the 30-mile range of the its transmitter, so he charters an airplane and flies around the valley until he acquires the signal again.
“These birds can get up thousands of feet into the air, up in jet stream, and be in another state,” he says. “We stay with them till we get them back.”
“We love our birds,” says Jena. “We’re attached to them.”
When the zoo shows end in the fall, instead of taking a break from the birds, Chindgren flees to his ranch in Wyoming to devote himself to his birds and to falconry.
“This is my hobby,” he says. “It has captivated me my whole life.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.