Phung Luu with a turkey vulture.

On the wing

Animal trainer brings free flight demonstrations to Ag Day

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8:48 a.m., April 28, 2011--Delaware’s native birds include the beguiling goldfinch, the majestic bald eagle and the cheery Carolina wren.

And then there’s the turkey vulture. With a face only a mother could love and a steady diet of roadkill, surely this native bird couldn’t have many fans.

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Think again. On the national level, there’s the Turkey Vulture Society, a Nevada-based nonprofit dedicated to informing the public about “the valuable and essential services this bird provides.”

Closer to home, there’s Phung Luu, a Dover-based animal trainer who is passionate about all raptors, including the much-maligned turkey vulture.

“The turkey vulture is a highly intelligent animal,” says Luu, a University of Delaware alumnus. “If people got to know more about the turkey vulture they would come to appreciate it.”

Getting people to know more about turkey vultures and other raptors is Luu’s life work. He operates one company that puts on bird demonstrations. His second business, Behavior and Training Solutions, teaches zookeepers and other naturalists to work with raptors and other animals to become proficient trainers. He has one fulltime employee and also employs seasonal parttime staff. 

Luu is quick to note that his birds of prey demonstrations don’t involve the taking of prey, as seen in traditional falconry. He also points out that he holds federal and state migratory bird education permits. (In other words, don’t even think about trying this at home.)

“I present free-flight bird encounters that showcase the birds’ flying abilities,” he says. “There’s both an entertainment and educational value to these shows.”

He spends a portion of each show talking about the raptors’ habitat, diet and behaviors in the wild. Understanding these behavors thorougly is key to Luu’s success as a trainer. “I know what each species is capable of doing and what individual birds are capable of doing,” says Luu. “I use positive reinforcement to train the animals to exhibit desired behaviors.”

Luu got interested in bird training and falconry thanks to the late Michael Brett, his math teacher at Brandywine High School. Brett was a falconer who would ocasionally bring a hawk or other bird of prey to school.

Luu was an animal science major at UD and he says that this background in animal reproduction, physiology, genetics and nutrition helps him in his current work. But his hands-on training didn’t come about until he worked at Tri-State Bird Rescue in Newark and eventually landed a position at the World Bird Sanctuary near St. Louis, Mo. Since then, he’s been a trainer at nature centers and zoos worldwide, most recently in Holland.

About two years ago, Luu decided to return to Delaware, where he spent most of his formative years. This spring and summer he’ll present free flight shows at locations throughout the state. He’s kicking off the season with two shows at UD’s Ag Day on April 30. He’s also developed several programs for Delaware State Parks, the first of which will be a demonstration at White Clay Creek Fest, May 7, at White Clay Creek State Park.

Luu will present several species native to Delaware in the Ag Day and state park programs, including broad-winged hawks. He’ll also use white-tailed hawks, which are native to the U.S. 

And he’ll have a turkey vulture or two. How could he not?

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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