The Courier-Mail - QWeekend

FLYING HIGH

Gold Coast bird handler Paul Mander trained the magpies for the film Penguin Bloom and says the iconic Aussie birds are misunderst­ood

- Story JANE ARMITSTEAD

It’s a most curious sight, watching a magpie nestle in for human affection. This is the Australian native bird we’ve been trained to fear; a bird known to viciously attack and torment passersby during its breeding season. Yet here it is, its razor-sharp beak close to Gold Coast bird trainer Paul Mander’s eyes, feathers against his cheek and, incredibly, a visible tenderness between the pair.

Beyond the black and white of this magpie, says Mander, 45, is an unlikely best friend.

“When he sees me in the morning, he flies over from his perch and comes and sits on the back of my chair and plays with my hair and tickles behind my ears,” says Mander, who trains birds for film and television, about his unique relationsh­ip with his pet magpie, Swoop.

“When I go outside, he’ll follow me around while I feed all the other birds and if I’m doing some gardening, he’ll come down and find himself some worms.

“They get very much involved in everything you’re doing.”

Mander knows how easy it is for a bird like this to change – and even save – lives, just like it did in the remarkable true story behind hit Australian film, Penguin Bloom, where a New South Wales family befriended an injured baby magpie.

The magpie, who they named Penguin, formed a close bond with paraplegic Samantha Bloom, her husband Cameron and their children, Rueben, Noah and Oli and brought unbridled joy to a family in need of hope.

Swoop was one of eight magpies Mander, who lives in Nerang, trained to play Penguin in the film, which stars Naomi Watts and Jacki Weaver.

He cleverly taught the birds – four chicks and four older birds (to reflect the various stages of Penguin’s life) – to recreate those precious human-like interactio­ns.

Of all the jobs he’s done, Mander admits this was one of the most challengin­g but rewarding.

“They are very intelligen­t birds,” says Mander, who used worms and repetition to train the birds.

“We had to train them to take tea bags out of a cup and interact with the actors when they were making tea and breakfast in the morning.

“We had to get them to interact with the children and play with them when they were cleaning their teeth and reach into their mouths with the toothbrush.

“We also had to train them to free fly outside and return back to us when we called them.”

The hardest trick, says Mander, was teaching the bird to pick up a child’s toy monkey in its beak, walk down a hallway and turn into the children’s room, jump onto their bed, place the monkey on the pillow then fly out the window.

“It was a process that took us six days to train over,” says Mander.

“We start off by stitching a button to the monkey where we want the bird to pick it up and get them to target the button, we build from that to eventually picking it up and placing it wherever we want it to be placed.

“The birds we were working with were very smart so they learnt behaviours very quickly.”

In the nine weeks of filming, Mander recalls only one minor mishap but he admits, it still makes him laugh.

When you hand raise a magpie and train

them, they are quite a fun bird

“One of the very first scenes we shot was Naomi (Watts) sitting in the wheelchair and one of the magpies had to sit on her head,” he recalls.

“I’ve walked in and put the magpie on Naomi and put it on her head, I turned around and walked away to get out of shot and when I looked back the magpie had gone to the loo on Naomi’s head.

“That was a good ice-breaker to see how she was going to react, it couldn’t get much worse than that, it ran all the way down her nose and right down the front of her face.

“There was an awkward silence for a few seconds but once Naomi started laughing, everyone else thought it was safe to laugh as well.”

Mander knows how endearing these birds are and says he was grateful the actors felt the same affection for the magpies, who were borrowed from wildlife and rescue centres in New South Wales and South Australia. They had been orphaned and raised in captivity.

“When you hand raise a magpie and train them, they are quite a fun bird to be around,” he says. “These magpies already had an affinity with people … they were very tame already which is the biggest part of the training.”

They’re a misunderst­ood bird, explains Mander, who hopes to open the eyes of Australian­s

Paul Mander with Swoop, now 18 months old, who starred as a baby magpie in the film Penguin Bloom and now lives with Mander and his wife Robyn in Nerang; training one of the eight magpies that played Penguin; Naomi Watts with Samantha Bloom and one of the starring birds.

Russell

Shakespear­e

Roadshow

Films to another side of the magpie. “It’s not a great opinion most people have of them,” he admits.

“If someone has grown up in the suburbs especially, they tend to have had an experience with a magpie swooping them as they walk to school or walking down the street.

“It is quite a natural reaction to be frightened of that.

“They (magpies) lack any inhibition towards people and that turns into aggression when they get much more mature and they have a reason to protect something.”

Mander is looking at his new friend Swoop playing in the garden as he says this, he’s a bird far from the vicious animal who attacks.

“Hopefully it allows people to see they do have the affection and they’re quite a comedian of a bird, they’re quite funny to be around.

“They always tend to put a smile on your face when you’re with them.”

Swoop, an orphan who had fallen out of his nest and been handed in to a wildlife carer in South Australia, was three weeks old when he was used in the movie. He played the younger stages of Penguin and, as the only bird without a home to go back to, Mander kept him.

Now 18 months old, he’s well and truly settled in at Mander’s home on the edge of the Gold Coast hinterland. He joins 60 other birds Mander keeps on his 1.2ha property including eagles, falcons, macaws, pelicans and parrots.

Mander has only ever known a life full of birds. He grew up in Cheshire, in the northwest of England, with a father who was a falconer.

His earliest memories are playing with baby owls and even chickens “while in nappies”, surrounded by the 16 birds his dad kept on their property.

Birds soon became his own obsession.

At 15, Mander got his first profession­al job at a Falconry Centre in England working on bird shows and, when he was 19, he helped train a snowy owl for a David Attenborou­gh project.

After moving to Australia in 1996, initially on a travel visa, he picked up work as a bird handler at Alice Springs Desert Park in the Northern Territory, where he met his wife, Robyn.

The pair settled on the Gold Coast in 1999 to work on TV series, Beastmaste­r, and, since then, have worked on films including Rover, starring Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson, and Storm Boy, which led to his work on Penguin Bloom.

Mander has also trained birds for the small screen, including the eagles used in Wolf Blass Wines commercial­s.

In between it all, the couple runs Broadwings Training Centre, where their birds are used for various occasions such as school shows and even weddings.

Impressive­ly, they’ve taught their eagles and owls to fly the rings down the aisle.

When Mander talks of his birds, they’re not just a job or even pets, they’re his life and, as he says, friends. “Every minute of every day, we are generally doing something with birds,” he says. “They are a massive part of my life.

“From the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed, I’m doing something with birds and sometimes even through the night, I’ve got to get up and feed baby birds.

“They mean everything to me, I couldn’t imagine a life without them.” ■

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