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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Birds vs Windows

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
            Only this and nothing more.”

- Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven

There was a time when most zoo animals were kept behind bars.  Technology was what it was at the time, and bars seemed like the most effective way to hold animals in while allowing visitors to get close to them.  Carl Hagenbeck popularized moated enclosures at the turn of the last century, but many zoo directors still preferred the bars.  Then came new advances in technology.  Harp-wire... stainless-steel mesh... and glass.  Well, okay, glass isn't new by any means, and it had always been used in reptile houses and small mammal houses.  But new tempered glasses, as well as acrylics and Plexiglas, were developed which could hold back bears, big cats, and other large carnivores. 

Bars came down, glass came up, and exasperated keepers began spending lots of time with a bottle of Windex in one hand, a rag in the other.

Glass, unfortunately, has a downside, besides being a pain in the butt to clean.  It's a great, nearly invisible barrier for visitors (unless kids rub their hands all over it).  It's also a terrible, nearly invisible barrier for birds.  Not so much zoo birds*.  I'm talking about wild ones.

The American Bird Conservancy estimates that a billion birds a year - all species, all sizes - die from collision with glass windows in this country.  Many are killed in cities with giant, glass-covered skyscrapers.

Now, the solutions are doable.  For one thing, windows can be shaded to make the glass more visible to birds.  For another, reflective tape or images can be put up to clue birds in to the fact that there is a solid barrier ahead of them.  Many zoos put flying bird decals on some of their windows as a warning to flying birds.  There are transparent films which allow people on one side of a window to see out, but make the view opaque or dark from the other, sort of like the tinted windows of limousines.

Or, we could just use less glass outdoors.  For zoo settings, that's my favorite option.  There was a time when glass was the only alternative to, say, chain-link or other ugly wires, but now there are so many nearly-invisible meshes, many of which are not only cheaper than glass, they a) don't break or scratch, b) don't provide an annoying medium for banging on, and c) allow visitors to hear and (yes) smell the animal more easily, while not impeding viewing or photographs.

Many zoos take this steps to reduce bird fatalities on their own campuses.  It's even more important to work to communicate this problem, and its solutions, to the visitors.  Very, very few of those billion-odd birds that die every year are killed in zoos.  They die in homes, in cities, and offices... many of which are lived in or staffed by people who visit zoos and aquariums.  By providing answers of how to prevent or reduce window-strike, zoos can help educate their visitors and save millions of feathered live a year.

* Which isn't to say that glass can't be a problem for zoo animals also.  When a new animal is released into an enclosure, especially one with a glass or wire fencing barrier, it's customary to put a visual barrier over it - paper tapped to the glass, cloth zip-tied to the fence, etc - to help familiarize the animal with the barrier.  That way, it doesn't fly or run straight into it.  As the animal settles in, the visual barriers are gradually peeled back.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Landing Zone

"Come feed the little birds, show them you care
And you'll be glad if you do.
Their young ones are hungry,
Their nests are so bare;
All it takes is tuppence from you."

- Mary Poppins

Visitors don't just come to zoos and aquariums to see animals - they come to connect with them.  When I go to a zoo, I tend to head directly for the most unusual, rarely-displayed animals on exhibit During my recent visit to Cape May County Zoo, I visited the aviary six times before I finally got a photo of their elusive ruddy turnstone (which I'd never heard of before my visit).  I was spending my day stalking an obscure shorebird, most of my fellow guests were outside... petting a Holstein cow. 

Petting barns are one extremely popular animal contact exhibit within zoos.  So are their aquatic counterparts, the touch-tanks.  Some zoos do kangaroo walk-throughs, others do giraffe feeding stations, and others still offer behind-the-scenes tours.  One of the most spectacular and lasting ideas for visitor-animal interactions came from Arizona's Wildlife World Zoo.  That was the unveiling of the first Lorikeet Landing.

The lorikeets - and their cousins, the lories - are a group of obscenely brightly colored parrots from Australia, New Guinea, and Indonesia.  Like many parrots, they love fruit... but their main diet is nectar.  They even have specialized tongues that allow them to lap up the nectar from within flowers.  What Wildlife World did was simple - they mixed up the nectar, put it in little cups, gave them to visitors, and watched the exhibit take off.  The concept since spread to many other facilities.

A hungry lorikeet is not a shy lorikeet.  I've seen lorikeet aviaries as both a visitor and as a keeper (running around collecting cups, chasing after kids who are chasing birds, etc.), and it's a lot to handle.  Birds will boldly swoop down and land on visitors, sometimes perching on top of their hands or heads, racing down arms to reach the cups.  It's especially crazy for those first visitors in the morning, who may find themselves blanketed in birdies.  Many visitors think they want the experience... and then find out that they really don't.  I've seen several children - and adults - throw their cups and run for the door, frantically shaking birds off as they go.

For most visitors, however, it's an incredible experience.  Many never come that close to a bird in their life before entering the aviary, let alone have one land on them.  It's a great chance to watch birds exhibit natural behaviors using natural adaptations - it's really something to watch those tongues working - and it helps the birds pay for their own food bill.  It's a little more stressful as a keeper - not only do you have to make sure that the birds are behaving towards the visitors (no biting!) and that the visitors are behaving towards the birds (no chasing!), you have to make sure that all of the birds are getting enough to eat.  Animals have unique personalities, and not all birds are comfortable approaching people for food, so other sources of nectar must be made available for the shy-guys.

In recent years, many zoos have switched out their lorikeets for budgerigars, the little Australian birds often sold as parakeets in the US and Europe.  Budgies have some advantages over lorikeets.  They're a lot less expensive, which makes it easier to start with a large flock (and a large flock is good - I had some pretty stressful summer days when our lorikeets were all full and sleepy by noon, but more visitors wanted to come and feed).  They always strike me as hardier.  Most importantly, the seeds that they eat - fashioned into seed-sticks for visitors to hold - are a lot cheaper to make and a lot less messy to clean up than nectar is.

There's a part of me which will always resent Lorikeet Landings and Budgiaries to some extent - especially the later - as zoos give so much space and resources to some parrots while neglecting others.  A lot of birds could be housed in the space that we seem to devote to pet-store parakeets.  These exhibits take a lot of supervision, as the welfare of the animals dictates that staff stand watch whenever visitors and animals are allowed to interact.  There is also always the heart-racing prospect that something could go amiss, and visitors could harm animals - some malicious child swatting a tiny, curious bird.  Some zookeepers object to the experience as it makes the animal seem more like a toy than a living thing.

Taken as a whole, however, my experience with these exhibits has been that allowing people and parrots to mingle and interact can build empathy and understanding towards feathered animals.  That connection a visitor makes wit a budgie can extend to hyacinth macaws, thick-billed parrots, or other species.  Lorikeet aviaries can be converted into mixed-species aviaries, providing space for other species as well.  There are risks and trade-offs with any attempt to bring people and animals together in a zoo setting.  But bringing people and animals together is, in a way, what zoos and aquariums are all about.  Lorikeet landings and budgiaries provide another opportunity for us to do this.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Fear the Bird

It wasn't until I started working at a zoo that I realized something - a hell of a lot of people are scared of birds.  I mean, really scared.  I don't know if it's the sudden movements, the flight, the loud calls, or the crazy starring eyes, but birds really freak a lot of people out.  Of course, then I see video clips like the one below and I begin to understand why.  I mean, come on, they're as big as he is...

Thursday, September 22, 2016

From the News: Release planned for native bird species extinct in the wild

Among the most endangered birds in the world are those that are found only on islands, far removed from land.  Evolving in an absence of mammalian predators, they lose the natural wariness (and sometimes the physical ability to fly) that protect their mainland kin from danger.  They also tend to have small population sizes and very specialized diet and habitat requirements.  The tragic case study of the birds of the Mariana Islands are one example.  Hawaii is another.

And that's what makes the latest news so exciting - the San Diego Zoo, partnered with state and federal wildlife agencies, is restoring the 'alala, or Hawaiian crow after it had been declared extinct in the wild.  Hopefully the success of this project will lead to an established, sustainable wild population, and similar reintroduction projects can take place with other Hawaiian birds.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Walking on Egg Shells

“A box without hinges, key, or lid,
Yet golden treasure inside is hid.”

- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

My first thought was that it was a leaf.  My second, almost immediately, upon seeing that it was three-dimensional, was that someone, for some reason, had put a lime there.  A very fresh, very vibrant green lime, obtained from who knows where, that had somehow wound up in an unlikely crevice in our aviary.  It took me a while to process it further - the texture smooth and shiny, not rough and pitted - before I realized what I was looking at.

An egg.

I feel embarrassed to admit it now, but my world view wasn't broad enough at that young age to entertain the possibility of green eggs.  I mean, Dr. Seuss wrote about them, for Pete's Sake, how real was I supposed to think they were?  There it was, however, very beautiful and very smooth and very green, laid in a shallow burrow behind a fallen log in our South American aviary.  The egg of an elegant-crested tinamou, a chicken-sized bird that boasts of the ostrich as one of its closer relatives.  It wasn't a big egg, but in proportion to its diminutive layer, it was huge.  Over the next few days, there was a clutch of them.

Eggs are one of the most extraordinary parts of working with birds.  One day you have a bird, the next, you have a bird... and an egg.  And then you have to figure out what to do with it.  Where did the bird lay the egg?  Does it look like she's seriously nesting, or was she out for a walk, paused to drop an egg in the middle of nowhere, and then sauntered on, merrily (our ducks do this all the time).  Does it look like there will be more coming?  Is she sitting on it - if so, should I leave it to her (or him, as it happens with some species... tinamou being one of them), or pull it an put it in an incubator?

Is it even fertile?  Female birds lay eggs, regardless of whether they will hatch or not.  Females housed alone or with other females will lay infertile eggs.  Those chicken eggs you buy at the grocery store?  Pop them in the incubator for as long as you like - most of those hens never saw a rooster.

When birds at our zoo lay eggs, my number one choice is to always leave it to the professional... and I don't mean the zookeepers.  Mother birds are much better at controlling the temperature of their eggs than I'll ever be, even with an incubator, so I prefer to leave it to them.  I keep an eye on the nest (if it really is a nest) and see if that egg, or just a fluke.  I make a note of when I first saw the eggs, then look up what the incubation period (how long it takes the egg to hatch) for that species is. 

If the female sits tight and acts like they're going to hatch, I leave her alone as much as I can.  If they're abandoned, I might candle them - taking them into a dark room and using a flashlight to illuminate the inside of the egg to see if any development is occurring.

Sometimes we don't want an egg to hatch - let's say the parents are brother and sister - or we do, but mom doesn't have the best track record of raising her chicks, or it's just too rare of an offspring to risk it.  In those cases, we may remove the egg and give the parents a fake one (a dummy egg) to sit on, just so they can feel like they're still doing something productive. 

If you just remove the eggs flat out, their usual response will be to lay another one.  Maybe even another after that... which can eventually drain the body of the hen of calcium (although this tendency to lay new eggs - double-clutching, in the trade, has been used to help some endangered, slow-reproducing species, such as condors and cranes, to produce more offspring in less time).

Sometimes eggs or chicks are pulled so the offspring can be hand-reared, but usually it's best to let the mother do the job herself.  She's got the evolutionary know-how... and she doesn't have fifteen other exhibits that require her attention.  Even if an egg is pulled for incubation, it can often be given to the mother shortly before hatching so that she'll raise it.  Similarly, you can give an egg to another female, one that doesn't have offspring of her own, to share the load.

However you go about it, there are few things more satisfying than coming in to work one day and finding your egg has been replaced by a baby bird.  Or, more exciting yet, to actually watch the shell pip and the youngster fight its way into the world.

And so, with respect to Tolkien, I think Bilbo was wrong.  The real treasure of an egg isn't the tasty yolk.  It's the promise of a new life - a flamingo, a penguin, an eagle, a parrot - inside, waiting to come out and meet the world.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Secretary Bird (Sagittarius serpentarius)

Sagittarius serpentarius (J. F. Miller, 1779)

Range: Sub-Saharan Africa
Habitat: Grassland, Open Woodland
Diet: Insects, Small Mammals, Snakes, Birds, Eggs
Social Grouping: Pairs, Family Groups
Reproduction:  Monogamous, may be for life.  Breeding occurs year round, but peaks August through March.  Nest is a stick platform built in a tree, may be reused for several years.  1-3 eggs incubated for 42-46 days by both parents. Chicks fledge at 2-3 months old, independent at 6 months old.
Lifespan: 15-20 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix II

  • Stand 90-120 centimeters tall, wingspan 120-135 centimeters, weigh 2.3-4.3 kilograms.  Females slightly smaller than males.  Longest legs of any bird of prey
  • Both sexes have white-gray plumage with black bellies, thighs, and flight feathers.  The eyes are surrounded by a patch of bare, orange skin.  Black, spatula-shaped feathers form a raised crest at the back of the head
  • Capable of flying very well, but prefers to walk, travelling 20-30 kilometers a day and earning it the nickname of "marching eagle"
  • Kills its prey by repeatedly kicking or stomping on it; especially famed as a snake hunter (especially venomous snakes - Latin name translates as "Snake Archer"), although snakes form a relatively small portion of the diet
  • Fairly nomadic, will travel great distances in response to fire, flood, and other environmental changes.  Juveniles disperse widely after gaining independence from parents
  • Adults have few natural predators; chicks in open-topped nests are vulnerable to eagles, ground hornbills, and other predatory birds
  • The common name is thought to come from the crest, said to resemble the quills that clerks and secretaries used to tuck behind their ears.  Another theory is that it comes from the Arabic Saqr-et-tair, or "hunter bird"
  • In decline, especially in West Africa, threatened by habitat loss and poisoning
  • Appears on the coats of arms of Sudan and South Africa

Friday, September 16, 2016

Zoo Review: Cape May County Park & Zoo

I'm calling it deja zoo - the weird feeling that you've seen a zoo before, even if you never have.  As far as I know, it's only happened to one person ever (me) and on one occasion - that of my first visit to the Cape May County Zoo, located in southern New Jersey.  From the animals featured to the exhibit design, the place reminded me very much of the Metro Richmond Zoo.  That's neither here nor there - just a casual observation.

Cape May County is one of the tiny handful of free zoos left in the country, and for a free facility, it boasts a pretty impressive collection.  The zoo is especially known for its collection of cats - the center of the park consists of three sprawling grassy yards - one for lions, one for cheetahs, and one for Amur tiger.  Two more big cats - snow leopard and Amur leopard - can be seen on Pathway to Diversity, a looping trail that originates just past the lion exhibit.  I felt like the name of the trail was a slightly cynical attempt to force cohesiveness among what really was a pretty random selection of animals.   Ring-tailed lemurs, red pandas, and birds of prey inhabited wood-and-wire cages.  The far side of the trail was dominated by three African savannah yards, housing ostriches, zebras, scimitar-horned oryx, and giraffe.  Also sharing the yards (though I did not see them) were bongo.  Cape May has been very involved in bongo conservation, with calves born at this zoo being released in Africa.

On the other side of the big cats were more hoofstock yards, these housing elk and bison, camels and llamas, as well as white white-tailed deer.  A petting barn with a cow, pigs, and goats is nearby.

The bird collection of the zoo is centered at the World of Birds aviary, located near the entrance.  The building consists mostly of a free-flight aviary with a path meandering down the middle. Scarlet and sacred ibis, crowned pigeons, and roseate spoonbills are the species that most guests will spot most easily.  Tucked among the branches or splashing beneath the waterfowl, more observant visitors may watch several other birds, such as whistling ducks, nicobar pigeons, and Bali mynahs.  My pleasure in the aviary was somewhat dampened by the assorted collection of parrots in, well, bird cages, both in the entry way of the building and lined up outside.  I also couldn't claim to be too impressed with must surely be the smallest flamingo flock - four birds, two Americans, two greaters - that I've ever seen.  Much more impressive was the giant bald eagle flight cage; one rarely sees flighted bald eagles in zoos, and to watch them fly was a treat.  I also have to give a special shout-out to the really cool observation beehive in the aviary.  Sandhill cranes and black swans are found elsewhere in the zoo.

The reptile and amphibian collection was likewise far more extensive than I would have expected at this zoo.  The Reptile and Amphibian House featured dozens of species, from Iberian ribbed newts to Chinese alligator.  I almost would have preferred to see fewer species and larger, more complex, mixed-species exhibits - by the end of the hall, I had tank fatigue.  Outside were yards for various tortoises, as well as a pool for American alligators. 

Scattered around the rest of the zoo were exhibits for American black bear, red-necked wallabies, muntjac, and various small primates.  A short Small Mammal trail featured bobcats, Patagonian cavies, red foxes, coatis, crested porcupines, and North American river otters.  I'm sorry I wasn't able to see the capybara - the exhibit looked lovely, perhaps the most attractive in the zoo - but all I was able to see over the course of several check-ins was an army of turtles.

Cape May was an enjoyable facility, but it felt lacking in some ways.  At other zoos, I've seen exhibits that were built too small, but it was easy to see that the keepers were doing their best to work with what they had.  At Cape May, many of the exhibits were quite spacious but seemed... empty.  The coati exhibit, for instance, wasn't much smaller than any of the ones I've ever worked with, but the floor was concrete.  It seemed a strange choice for animals that love to dig and root around.  The leopard exhibit was tall - but it didn't have much in the way of climbing structures to take advantage of that height.  It was basically a grassy field with a wooden platform in the middle.  In the reptile house, I saw, for the first time ever, an eyelash viper on a platform.  I've never seen one other than in the branches.  Maybe I caught him at an awkward moment, but I would've loved to have seen more perching in that exhibit, branches of different diameters and heights.

I would certainly still find Cape May worth checking out again in the years to come.  Lots of changes seem to be in the works.  The big cat exhibits are in the process of being refurbished or reconstructed.  The small primate exhibits are slated to be next.  Right now, the zoo has an impressive collection in some very utilitarian exhibits.  There's a lot there that's okay, very little that's remarkable or beautiful.  It would be fantastic to see some originality and more emphasis on creature-comforts shine in the new exhibits.