DALLAS -- The Fair Park Band Shell will never be mistaken for one of the carnival rides at the nearby State Fair midway.But the hordes of children and adults who gather there daily for the Birds of the World show might disagree.Where else would they have to duck as a huge marabou stork, with its 11-foot wingspan, glides over their heads? Or look up to see a Harris' hawk divebomb from the Texas Star Ferris wheel to the stage in a matter of seconds?"I just love it," said Anne Gardener of Dallas. "It's really the reason I come to the fair each year. You just don't expect to see something like this, with all of these birds flying overhead, right in the middle of State Fair. It's even better than having a corny dog, which I might do after this is over."Now in its 24th year at the fair, the bird show is the brainchild of Steve Martin, an Orlando, Fla., trainer who produces bird shows worldwide, including at Disney World and the Dallas Zoo."Our show is all about flight," Martin said.But it does include more than flying birds.Some of the featured performers include Groucho, a yellow-naped parrot that sings and has appeared on The Tonight Show; a crow named Escrow that snatches dollar bills out of the audience members' hands; and Sluggo, a seriema that smashes a toy alligator to the ground, mimicking the way it kills its prey.At the end of the show, various birds of prey, including a bald eagle, are brought onstage for the audience to see.While keeping the audience engaged, Martin tries to weave a wildlife conservation message into the show."The entertainment is a vehicle for any conservation message that we can get across," Martin said.'I've never lost a bird'Growing up in California, Martin knew early on that he wanted to work with wildlife.Originally his goal was to become a game warden, but he quickly realized that law-enforcement-type work wasn't his calling.His big break came at age 24 when he went to work with a Hollywood animal trainer, who assigned him to an animal show at the San Diego Wild Animal Park."I did the show for four years, and he and I never saw eye to eye because I wanted to do conservation education ... and he wanted to do pure entertainment," Martin said. "He wanted to do parrots on bicycles and scooters, and I just didn't want to do that. I did what I wanted and in 1980, he fired me."Martin set up his own company and eventually moved it to Florida. Natural Encounters Inc. now has more than 40 employees.His company has grown and evolved so much in recent years that the State Fair is the only show where Martin still performs.The rest of the year, he's working with zoos worldwide, teaching the same positive-reinforcement techniques that he uses with the birds."We can't force them to do anything," Martin said. "They can literally fly away if they want to. They choose to come back to us because of the positive-reinforcement training."But it doesn't always go according to plan.Birds sometimes decide to hang out in a tree for a while, especially during the first week of the fair as they get used to the surroundings.When it happens, Martin and his trainers wait them out and they eventually fly back."I've never lost a bird," Martin said.Conservation missionMartin's commitment to wildlife conservation includes seeking donations to help save animals ranging from the Javan rhino, perhaps the rarest mammal in the world, to the blue-throated macaw.His company has hatched more than 40 of the blue-throated macaws at the Florida facility.And two of them that performed at the fair last year are slated to be released into their native habitat in Bolivia.His company received $57,000 in donations from State Fair patrons last year -- and more than $1 million since it started staging shows.With his other conservation efforts -- Martin will head to Germany next month to work with elephants -- he sometimes wonders how long he'll continue to take part in the bird show at the State Fair.But he said he won't quit anytime soon."First of all, it's in my ... contract that I must perform. And I still really enjoy it," Martin said. "I think I'm still fairly good at it and I'm having fun with it."And I come out here and people high-five me and welcome me back. For me, it's very enriching."Next year, the fair plans to start its Summer Adventures in Fair Park, and Martin will also have a show there.He won't be the master of ceremonies, but he is thinking up ways to incorporate a new 500-foot tower ride into those shows."It will be part of the show," Martin said. "It will be something to see those birds flying over Fair Park. We'll come up with something good."Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698Twitter: @fwhanna
If you go
The State Fair of Texas continues through Oct. 21 at Fair Park in Dallas. The Kroger Birds of the World show takes place daily at various times at the Fair Park Band Shell.
Hours: Gates open at 10 a.m. daily.
Tickets: Season pass, $39.95. Adults, $13.95 in advance, $16 at the gate. Children under 48 inches tall and seniors, $10.95 in advance, $12 at the gate.
Getting there: From westbound Interstate 30, take Exit 49B. From eastbound I-30, take Exit 48B. Visitors can also take DART's Green Line to the Fair Park Station or the MLK Jr. Station.
Parking: $15 at official fair lots
Information: 214-565-9931 or www.bigtex.com