Eli Laurent is partial to mammals, amphibians and reptiles. But he has a new respect for birds after Kiwi, an African gray parrot, beat him to the answer to several arithmetic questions.
The 8-year-old Lenexa boy grinned when he realized the answer was always “four,” which the parrot squawked out to every question.
The vaudeville-style routine delighted the audience at an indoor bird show that is a special attraction this summer at the Kansas City Zoo. For about half an hour, visitors are amused and amazed as exotic species flap over their heads, exhibit natural behaviors and do a bit of showing off.
It happens in the air-conditioned environs of the former IMAX theater at the zoo. A bamboo hut built on stage and towering tree trunks placed out in the audience make the large venue more intimate.
As in a revue, the stars are featured one by one. Rosie, a trumpeter hornbill from Africa, catches grapes tossed high in the air above the audience. Sluggo, a red-legged seriema from South America, dashes a rubber lizard against a rock, demonstrating how it would kill its prey in the wild. A double yellow-headed Amazon parrot can sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and call out “Here, kitty, kitty.”
The performances brought squeals and giggles from children in the audience.
“I think they like it because it’s the first time, maybe, in the lives of a lot of them that they’ve had birds fly over them,” said Karen O’Donnell, a trainer for the bird show, which runs through Labor Day. “Here, they get to enjoy them up close and personal and see how beautiful they are. They’re really incredible animals.”
The show is called “SOAR: A Symphony in Flight,” and is presented by Natural Encounters Inc. of Winter Haven, Fla., which also presents programs at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and other parks around the country. The program here is free with zoo admission, but tickets are required. The theater seats about 400 and was full at a morning show this week, but less than full for the afternoon show.
The zoo had been pondering how to use the IMAX theater since it stopped showing films there in 2007. The indoor venue offered challenges for the birds and their trainers.
“The problem we faced, mostly, was the lighting inside here,” O’Donnell said. “It’s dark and it’s hard to see those walls. The birds are used to bright light. But they’ve done really, really well. I’m impressed by how well they’ve done.”
O’Donnell, who studied at Kansas State University, said she is also impressed at improvements to the Kansas City Zoo since she knew it as a child growing up in Johnson County.
The bird show opened here last month and is still evolving. Rosie — that’s the stage name for a 2-year-old bird named Trinity — was reluctant to exit after her act. But Arthur, a king vulture from South America, hit his marks on cue in his first performance before an audience.
Other species included a Harris hawk and a magnificent Eurasian eagle owl. It was one of many birds that interacted with volunteer audience members. They included 8-year-old Jabari Jackson of St. Louis, who was visiting the zoo with his grandmother, Doris Williams of Kansas City.
Jabari and another young man were invited on stage to sit directly below the large owl’s roost as it swooped toward them from the audience.
“It was a little scary,” Jabari said later, pleased that he captured the moment with a photo on his phone.
The show also has a conservation message. A collared raven used its beak to pluck dollar bills from the outstretched hands of willing donors and drop them into a collection box for a protection effort called World Parrot Trust.
During this particular show, no one in the audience was the recipient of an unwanted dropping from overhead, although that does happen from time to time.
“It’s not a problem, really,” O’Donnell said, “but it’s a possibility. We’ve considered getting T-shirts that say ‘I got pooped on at the Kansas City Zoo.’ ”