Portrait of a Bird Trainer

Meet Aron Smolley, Senior Bird Trainer at the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This lucky duck has been working at the Aviary for the last five years. He has worked with many types of birds, including toucans, parrots, vultures, roadrunners, hawks, eagles, owls, crows, cranes, and more! Here are some of the bright birds he's currently working with...

Zazu, the wrinkled hornbill
Grunt, the colorful king vulture
Precocious kea parrots
Tropical turaco named Kambo
Aron and the Aviary contribute to conservation efforts on a daily basis by using education birds to inspire curiosity and love in those who visit. A love for the natural world and its animals is important in instilling a desire to protect it. Aron not only cares for the birds at the Aviary, he is also responsible for creating and presenting the Aviary's bird shows, which focus on educating visitors about the simple things they can do to protect the environment, birds and their habitat. Some of these topics include recycling and stopping the use of pesticides.

To put on successful bird shows, Aron and his team must train the birds on a daily basis. This means he gets to spend A LOT of time with them!

Aron and Rousseau educating some promising young birders

Phoenix the falcon putting smiles on faces

 Matilda the red-tailed black cockatoo learning commands
These baby West African crowned cranes, Jasmine and Tiana, are learning how to keep up!
Relaxing is a skill, too! Aron with Rafiki the Northern ground hornbill

I asked Aron to tell me what he likes best about his job, and to elaborate on some of his best moments at the Aviary. Here's what he said:

"Other than all the behind-the-scenes stuff I do on a daily basis, my main role at Tracy Aviary is to connect people to the birds on a personal level. I present the bird show twice a day, and the emphasis is on getting the birds as close to people as possible, with as many interactive experiences as possible. We strive to give people information that cannot be found in a book or through a Google search. Most of my bird show dialogue consists of stories about the individual bird as well as making connections between birds and our every day lives. I tell people little things they can do (or stop doing) to help birds in the wild, I show them how to find them in the wild, and I demonstrate for them why they should care.

When not performing shows, I am mostly out and about on aviary grounds, with one (or more) birds, letting the birds show off their natural behaviors, whether it be flying, climbing, running, or swimming. My goal is to give people unexpected intimate experiences with the birds in an informal setting. These are my favorite types of encounters, the ones that surprise people. I love to see their eyes light up when I approach them with a friendly bird that they can hold, feed, or take a selfie with. 

When you work closely with the birds, you start to pick up on their individual personalities and of course you become very attached. I work with a wrinkled hornbill, Zazu, that will perform his entire show routine while carrying a grape in his beak that I gave him at the start, and he will give it back to me before exiting. He will insist that I take the grape from him or he will not move on to the next step and the show will be delayed. 

My personal favorite bird at the aviary is our aplomado falcon, Phoenix. He is trained to fly to a glove, no matter who is wearing the glove. In the bird show we call a volunteer on stage to put on a glove and fly the falcon. I once called a 5 year old child on stage to hold Phoenix. 4 years later the nine-year-old approached me with his parents and said that he has a framed photo of me, him, and Phoenix hung on his wall. When he grows up he is going to be a bird trainer and teach people to protect birds. 

One of the most emotional experiences of my career/life was losing our golden eagle, Nizhoni, last year. I had just returned from my first trip to Belize, and made it back just in time to hold her in my arms when she passed. It was one of the hardest things I had ever been through, but I was extremely touched by the outpouring of support I received, even from people I had never met. I was getting facebook messages and emails from people that had Nizhoni at their Boy Scout events and weddings, people that had bumped into me and her out and about on grounds - I even got a black and white photo sent to me from one of her original handlers more than 20 years ago. She inspired tens of thousands of people, and I had the honor of being the last person to work with her in a very long line of trainers. Her spirit lives on in everything I do.

I once ran into a blind man at the aviary and allowed him to feed, and then hold, Inca, our red-billed toucan. The blind man said out loud that she was beautiful, that he could feel her beauty in his hands. I think about this interaction all the time, because I agree that she is beautiful but I find it to be profound that someone could appreciate her beauty without seeing her brightly colored bill and exquisitely complex feather details."

After visiting
Belize and its rainforest, Aron decided to move there to work with the Belize Raptor Center. They will be organizing their first bird show program, of which Aron will take the lead. Conservation education is important in tropical countries, where most of the wildlife and bird species of the planet reside. "As much as I love Tracy Aviary, I am heading to Belize because I feel that this is where my mission is needed more. I see vast potential in the conservation community down there and I want to be a part of it. I hope that our efforts will inspire people around the planet to protect our natural world and keep it safe."

Thank you, Aron, for all of your education efforts and hard work throughout the years, and for being an advocate for the planet. The birds love you!


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