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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 lives 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 is 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. Sacred and scarlet 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.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

From the News: Several penguins treated after oilspill

You won't see their names or institutions mentioned in the article, but zoo and aquarium professionals are participating in the clean-up effort to save over 90 African penguins affected by the latest oil spill. 

African penguins were - just a few decades ago - one of the more common penguin species.  That, combined with their overall hardiness (being from a temperate zone themselves, they can better adjust to North American climatic conditions than Antarctic penguins can), resulted in their becoming very common in American zoos.  Now, they are increasingly threatened in the wild, both by loss of their natural food sources and by oil spills - they were recently upgraded to "Endangered" by the IUCN.  Zoos and aquariums may represent one of their best hopes for long-term survival. 

Best of luck to everyone involved in the rehabilitation efforts of these rescued birds!

Some of the penguins being rehabilitated by Sanccob in Cape St Francis. (Sanccob and SANParks)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

On Eagles' Wings

In recent years, free-flight shows have become increasingly popular in zoos and aquariums; at some facilities, especially bird-centric ones, such as the National Aviary, they are the star attraction.  I still remember the first time I attended one, during my first visit to the San Diego Wild Animal Park years and years ago.  The flights are  a testament to the new zoo philosophy of allowing animals to express as much natural behavior as possible, both for the welfare of the animal and the education of the visitor. 

The training that goes into them, however, is far older than the shows... older, possibly, then the zoos themselves.  Free flight shows find their origins in an ancient sport that was one of one mankind's earliest efforts at animal husbandry... one that is still practiced today, including by some zookeepers that I know.  The sport is falconry.

Falconry describes the use of trained bird of prey of hunt wild game.  It may vary from a kestrel taking small birds and rodents to a golden eagle bringing down a grey wolf, a feat still accomplished in some parts of Central Asia.  The practice is believed to have originated in the Middle East over 4000 years ago, spreading throughout Europe and Asia.  Over the centuries, it transitioned from a means of securing prey in the arid grasslands of Mesopotamia to the sport of kings and emperors, with one's social status in part defined by what bird one flew.  A truly spectacular bird, like a pure white gyrfalcon, was worth far more than its weight in gold.  The subject was so important that a personage no less than the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick II, took it upon himself to write a textbook on the subject.

Now, the captive breeding of birds of prey didn't occur until considerably later in history, so for most of the history of falconry, birds were taken from the wild.  The advantage of this was that the bird presumably already knew how to hunt.  The disadvantage was that it was a wild bird which had no desire to have any sort of association with humans.  The birds had to be taught to obey the commands of their human handlers and, most importantly, to come back.  Training techniques that were used with a dog or horse wouldn't work on a hawk or falcon.  A hunter couldn't beat a hawk, or force his will upon it.  If he did, then the bird would simply fly off the moment it was released for a hunt, never to return.  The bird had to want to cooperate.  Falconry may have been responsible for the earliest development of training with positive reinforcement.

As firearms became more prevalent in the 1700s, falconry began to decline in popularity, though it never died out completely.  This, it turns out, was a blessing for birds - many of the husbandry techniques developed and passed down by falconers over the years ended up playing a crucial role in the conservation of endangered birds of prey in the mid-and-late twentieth century, including one of the most iconic of falconry species, the peregrine falcon.

Today, falconry is perhaps one of the most heavily regulated sports on earth.  New falconers must apprentice themselves to masters for years, develop facilities for their birds, and acquire permits.  All of this to obtain a hunting partner which may still opt to abandon you forever the first time you take the field together.  Ensuring it doesn't do so requires lots of patience, lots of training, and lots of trust.  One former zookeeper roommate of mine took up falconry.  His relationship with his red-tailed hawk was so close that they'd often eat dinner at the table together... I stayed at the other end.   (Come to think of it, I seem to remember seeing him with that hawk a lot more than I ever recall seeing him with his girlfriend).

Eagles and other raptorial birds, while majestic, are inclined to laziness in a zoo setting, and even with the largest of aviaries, they can be difficult to encourage to fly and exercise without sufficient reward.  The skills of falconry leant themselves to the establishment of free-flight shows in zoos and aquariums... minus the part where the bird kills something at the end.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Flights of Fancy

"Close the door!" my coworker shrieked, about three seconds too late to do any good.  Before the words were even out of her mouth, a long, turquoise-and-gold streak shot over my head and out the door.  On pure reflex, I started to lift a hand to grab it, before suddenly hesitating.  I'd seen what the beak of a blue-and-yellow macaw could do to a hard-shelled nut.  I was, to say the least, I little too attached to all of my fingers for that.

The next several minutes were spent scouring the zoo grounds for the feathered fugitive, as well as bickering back and forth over who was to blame.  I opened the door without knocking.  So what, I replied?  Who among us had ever knocked on the break room door before opening it?  It's not like it was a changing room.  And there certainly were never animals flying around in it.  What the hell had she been doing, anyway?

The answer came at the exact moment that we spotted our bird - sixty feet up in a pine tree in the zoo's parking lot (thankfully, it was empty at the close of the day... unthankfully, that meant it would be dark soon).  She'd been training the parrot for use in what she envisioned would be the zoo's first ever free-flight show.  Craning my neck up at the mocking macaw, I deduced that we were off to a bad start.

There are few spectacles of nature more everyday, yet otherworldly, than birds in flight.  Most of the time, our exposure to it consists of small birds - robins, sparrows, starlings - fluttering from branch to bird feeder.  The experience becomes far more spectacular with big birds... and the bigger, the more extraordinary. 

Some trainers and zookeepers have responded with free-flight shows, where birds - usually spectacular species, such as large parrots, ravens, and raptors - fly over the heads of the audience, coming to land in front of their eyes.  At various zoos, I've seen kites snatch thrown food out of the air, macaws swoop down the aisles of a packed arena, and a raven pluck a dollar bill from the outstretched hands of a visitor and drop it in a donation jar, all without missing a wingbeat.  The appeal to visitors is obvious.  The enrichment and exercise opportunities for the birds are readily apparent.  The stress levels for the keepers?  *Shudder*

They call us "zookeepers"... as in, we're supposed to "keep" the animals in the zoo.  Taking a zoo-born bird and letting it up into the air requires more than superb training skills... it requires a lot of trust.  Trust that the bird will fly to where it is supposed to, and not make a beeline for the horizon.  Trust that you can recall the bird should anything happen to throw it off its routine, such as the sudden presence of wild birds which could alarm it.  Trust that you can guarantee the safety of the bird when there is nothing between it and the visitors but air... and vice versa.  You can prepare for the flight as many times as you like in an aviary or flight cage.  Once you let go of the jesses, however... you're on a wing and a prayer... as trainers at the National Aviary recently discovered with one of their free-flight birds, a hooded vulture.

I'm comfortable admitting, I've never felt I've had anywhere near the training chops to pull this off... but I take comfort in the fact that 99% of the bird keepers I know don't either.  Some zoos contract out free-flight shows to companies of specialized trainers, who work tirelessly with their birds to develop the relationships and trust necessary to do this flights.  Others do them in-house, and the bond that goes into the work is extraordinary.  Even so, I think I could take a bird, raise it from chick to adult, spend all day every day working with it, training and shaping the behaviors of flying from me to a perch, or vice versa... and still never feel ready to take it outside and try it under the open sky.

A big part of that might have to do with our elusive macaw.  We tried coaxing her with treats.  Calling her by name.  Even bringing out another macaw (this one feather-clipped) hoping to lure her down.  No dice.  Eventually, we had to admit defeat with darkness coming.  We called the fire department, who sent someone with a net up in a bucket truck.  My heart was in my mouth the entire time - I was sure that the bird would fly off the second that it saw the alien monster reaching up to her.  We asked if one of us could be the one to go up in the truck, but were refused for safety reasons.

Luckily, it worked.  The fireman was able to net her and bring her - struggling more than a bit - back to the ground, where we scooped her up with a towel and hurried her inside.

That was the last of our free flight fancies.  From that point on, we were both happy to leave them to the professionals.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Zoo Joke: Mystery of the Crows

I found this joke elsewhere online and am shamelessly stealing it... it's a fun little murder mystery (get it?  Crows?  Murder? Heh heh heh...)

Researchers for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority found over 200 dead crows near greater Boston recently, and there was concern that they may have died from Avian Flu.

A Bird Pathologist examined the remains of all the crows, and, to everyone's relief, confirmed the problem was definitely NOT Avian Flu. The cause of death appeared to be vehicular impacts.

However, during the detailed analysis it was noted that varying colors of paints appeared on the bird's beaks and claws. By analyzing these paint residues it was determined that 98% of the crows had been killed by impact with trucks, while only 2% were killed by an impact with a car.

MTA then hired an Ornithological Behaviorist to determine if there was a cause for the disproportionate percentages of truck kills versus car kills.

The Ornithological Behaviorist very quickly concluded the cause: when crows eat road kill, they always have a look-out crow in a nearby tree to warn of impending danger.

The scientific conclusion was that while all the lookout crows could say "Cah", none could say "Truck."

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus)

Green Peafowl
Pavo muticus (Linnaeus, 1766)

Range: Southeast Asia, Indonesia
Habitat: Tropical Forest, Savannah
Diet: Grains, Seeds, Insects, Fruit
Social Grouping: Females in Flocks of 2-6, Males Solitary
Reproduction: Breed in late spring or early summer.  4-6 eggs are incubated by female for 26-28 days.  Young fledge within two weeks, but remain with mother until next year.
Lifespan: 20 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix II

  • Body length 100-300 centimeters (including the male's tail train), wingspan 1.2-1.6 meters
  • Male has bright bluish-green head and neck with erect green crest atop its head and yellow patch of bare skin beneath the eyes.  Wings are dark green and blue.  The tail coverts are up to 1 meter in length, each ending with a gold and green eyespot.  Females and juveniles are a duller green and lack the trailing tail.
  • Females and juveniles form small flocks, which pass through the territories of adult males; males attempt to court females by displaying their tails and dancing
  • Adults molt after breeding, but do so quickly and are never flightless
  • Three subspecies: the Javan (nominate), Burmese P. m. spicifer, and Indo-Chinese P. m. imperator, varying in coloration of feathers and facial skin
  • Hunted for tail feathers and for meat; also illegally collected for bird trade, poisoned as crop pests, and threatened by habitat loss
  • Have been traded around the world for centuries; the species was originally described as being from Japan due to its presence in Japanese artwork.  The species was an ancient sumbol of the kings of Burma, once appeared on the Burmese flag

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Vanishment of Vultures

There was really no way of telling what the wildebeest had died of, or how long it had been dead.  To tell you the truth, we could barely tell that it had once been a wildebeest at all.  The entire surface of the carcass seemed to be swarming beneath a carpet of black or brown wings, with naked heads occasionally popping up like periscopes.  Even as our guide edged us off the dirt road for a closer look, more and more vultures descended upon the quickly disappearing bovid.  With what I could swear was a slight smirk, one hopped onto the long nose of the wildebeest and, with a deft flick of its beak, extracted an eyeball, which it tossed back with every sign of relish.

We'd seen a lot of exciting wildlife on that safari to Tanzania.  Much of it was endangered - cheetahs on the Serengeti, elephants in Tarangire, black rhino in Ngorongoro.  Sometimes we'd get sentimental as we sat around the campfire, wondering how much longer some of these animals would remain wild in Africa.  One group of animals that it never occurred to me that we might have to worry about losing were the vultures. 

That was my mistake.

The vultures of Africa and South Asia play an undisputedly important role in their ecosystems.  To them falls the task of clearing up the carcasses of other animals, especially large mammals.  Without them, environmental contamination, maybe disease, could decimate other species.  As important as they are, however, they remain little studied compared to the more glamorous large mammals upon which they feed.  No one was paying too much attention to them... until they started to vanish.

It started in India, home to nine vulture species.  One of them, the Oriental white-back, was the most common raptorial bird in the world, emphasis on the "was."  Suddenly, the carrion-eating birds began to vanish at a rate believed to be the quickest avian decline ever recorded.  For the longest time, no one could figure out why.  No one was hunting them.  There was no evidence of infectious disease.  There was plenty of food to eat.  What could the problem be?

It turned out to be the food, a problem that was solved only when the vultures of South Asia were already almost wiped out entirely.  Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug, had been introduced for use to India's enormous cow population.  It turns out that Diclofenac is good for cows, but not so good for vultures - lethally toxic, as a matter of fact.  Vultures who dined of deceased cows that had Diclofenac in their systems died in droves.  Since many dozens of vultures would congregate at a single cow, even a relatively small number of cows with the drug in their systems had the potential to contaminate enormous numbers of birds.  Three species of vulture, including the formerly omnipresent white-rump, saw their populations drop by over 95% in just a few years.

The loss of the vultures impacted India in other ways.  Nature abhors a vacuum, it has been said, and the disappearance of the vultures led to an explosion in the number of feral dogs and rats who took on the scavenger niche.  The difference between dogs and rats and vultures, of course, is that the later doesn't also carry rabies.  Even the mammalian scavengers couldn't keep up with the backlog of carrion, and anthrax and other diseases soon spread, requiring vast expenditures of money to combat.

One of the most striking side effects of the vulture decline has been on the Parsis, a Zorastrian community.  Parsis traditionally disposed of their dead by leaving them on special elevated platforms called "Towers of Silence", where vultures would consume the dead and return their bodies to the earth.  A lack of vultures caused the practice to fade away.

Fortunately, India - along with neighbors Nepal and Pakistan - rallied to action.  New drugs were developed and, following tests on captive vultures, deemed safe.  It is hoped that the Asian vulture crisis will slowly right itself out... but it will take some time.  Vultures breed slowly, and they lost a lot of ground.

The situation in Africa has a similar key point - vultures dying from eating contaminated carcasses - but the stories diverge there wildly.  The key difference is that in Africa, the poisoning is deliberate.  For millions of years, lions, hyenas, and other mammalian predators have used the sight of circling vultures to help them identify distant sources of carrion, which they could then run up and appropriate.  In East and South Africa, game wardens and park rangers use the same trick to catch poachers - look for the vultures that are circling over a recently killed rhino or elephant.  In order to remove such telling signs of their crimes, some poachers have begun pouring poison over the animals they kill.  Leave no witnesses, one might say.  Four African vulture species are now listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, with others listed at other levels of endangerment. 

Zoos have been involved with both vulture crises from the beginning.  It was a biologist from the London Zoo that first studied the causes of vulture decline in India.  The new, safe Diclofenac substitute was tested on captive vultures.  Zoos maintain captive insurance colonies for several species of Old World vulture, which may be possible reservoirs of candidates for future reintroduction programs, similar to that which saved the California condor.  And zoos have been a leading voice in educating the public about this disaster and raising support (and funds) to solve the problem.

Vultures won't win too many popularity contests, for reasons that I can never understand - they are truly extraordinary birds.  Whether or not one finds them beautiful, however - and there is no accounting for taste - their impact on the ecosystems that they call home is undeniable.  To risk losing vultures wouldn't just rob the Asian and African skies of some of their most majestic inhabitants.  As we saw in India, it could trigger environmental, social, health, and financial consequences that affect all species - our own not least of all.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Satire: Nature, You Scary

"The birds didn't stop their pecking until the squad leader was bleeding and no longer moving.  The rest of the aliens grabbed the human and ran for their lives.  'What were those?' the human was later asked. 'Geese.'"

The aforementioned ostrich aside, I've had some pretty scary encounters with animals that a lot of people don't take too seriously.  Deer.  Turkeys.  Swans.  Even an obnoxiously aggressive squirrel.  It always gives me a chuckle to hear how scared zoo visitors can be of the wolves, alligators, and other relatively placid animals, while not appreciating just how dangerous some of the other animals can be. 

"It's just Bambi," they'll say.  Yeah, trying saying that when Bambi is in rut and is trying to ram you in the gut with those antlers.  He won't seem so sweet and lovable when he's prancing around wearing you as a hat.

I was super amused to read this feed, which imagines an alien invasion of our planet.  Remember in H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds when (spoiler alert) the invading Martians, after laying low our human armies, are decimated themselves by the common cold?  Imagine that they never made it that far.  Instead, the found themselves slaughtered in droves by earth's animal life, ranging from the obviously lethal, like leopards and tigers, to the what's-the-worst-that-could-happen?, like cows and emus.  And geese.

If there is one smug consolation for the human characters in these short stories, it's that they can all go, "Can't say we didn't warn you..."

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Flightless Giants

You can get an exciting new perspective in life from lying on your back underneath a pickup truck in the middle of a field.  In my case, unfortunately, the excitement was unwanted, and the perspective was mostly that, if I emerged from under the truck, I was going to likely be stomped to death.  Reinforcing this summation of events were the lean, scaly legs, terminating in claws, that stomped around the edge of the truck as I lay down in what I really hoped was mud.

I'm pretty sure there's a scene like this in Jurassic Park somewhere, I thought, waiting for the clawed-and-scaly feet to wander off... and take the rest of the body with them.

Forget about the crocodilians and the big lizards.  If the dinosaurs left any heir-apparent roaming the earth, they would be the ratites - the flightless giants of the bird world.  The ostrich, biggest of all living birds.  Its dwarf South American counterparts, the rheas.  The emu, a fluffy brown Aussie so numerous that the government once declared war on it... and lost.  The cassowaries, which could best be described as neon-colored death-ninjas, capable of scooping out your innards with a clawed kick.

And last, but not least, the outliers of the group, the kiwis - chicken-sized New Zealanders with so many un-birdlike traits that they've been described as the honorary mammal.

As it happened, it was a male ostrich who was keeping me pinned down that day.  Ostriches, rheas, and emus are all very common in captivity, both in zoos (where they are often incorporated into mixed-species exhibits) and commercial farms, where they are ranched for their meat, eggs, and leather.  Some zoos, perhaps having experiences like mine, get their exhibit birds from ranches too.  That way, they can just house females and avoid that whole super-aggressive-breeding-mode-thing.  Cassowaries are far more delicate and harder to breed, and very few zoos display rare, nocturnal kiwis.

Outside of breeding mode, the larger ratites (apart from the cassowary) are a tractable, good natured bunch.  They are very personable and endlessly curious.  Unfortunately, their main method of investigation is the mouth; ratites have a very open definition of food and will eat whatever they can swallow, from seeds to small turtles.  This leads to them swallowing things which they should most definitely not, sometimes with severe consequences (the old legends about ostriches being able to safely eat anything, including metal, are false).

This ties-in to another famed trait of the ratites - their lack of smarts.  "An ostrich has three brain cells," I once heard an exasperated curator declare.  "One for inhaling, one for exhaling, and one for everything else."  And yes, compared to parrots, corvids, and other "bird brains", ratites are somewhat intellectually limited.  However, a new and more skilled generation of trainers have shown that even an old ostrich can learn a new trick.  Oh, and in defense of ostrich intelligence, I should point out that they do not, in fact, bury their heads underground so you can't see them.

Of course, if there is one defining trait the ratites share, it's their flightlessness.  Cassowaries and kiwis evolved on islands with no mammalian predators (though even if they hadn't, it would be a brave or foolhardy predator who would attack a cassowary).  The other three depend on their size to put them out of the range of most predators, their speed to outrun those that remain.  Ostriches are the fastest animals on earth, with emu and rhea not far behind.  A lack of flight reveals itself with smaller wings, larger bones, heavier bodies, and feathers that don't lock together for aerodynamics.  Ostriches and their kin are often exhibited with hoofstock at zoos, and tend to be treated as honorary ungulates.

 The flightless giants all tend to get lumped under the name of "ostrich", though a decent number of people also recognize the name "emu" as well.  They are popular zoo animals - surpassed only by penguins and flamingos in popularity with guests, I suspect - on account of their size, their visibility, and their boldness - you don't have to scour an exhibit to see an ostrich strolling around casually.  Their tremendous presence in cartoons, movies, television, etc have given them a great pop-culture presence, even manifesting itself with new species of fictional ratites, from Big Bird of Sesame Street to the Chocobos of Final Fantasy.  Perhaps being tall, flightless bipeds, with forward facing eyes and shorter beaks than many birds, we see a little of ourselves in them.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Sporcle Quiz: Birds of the World

I discovered these quizzes just the other day... and proceeded to play all of them in the space of an hour and a half (don't judge me, it was a long week at work).  I hope you enjoy them as much as I did - at least a few of the birds featured in the Species Fact Profiles make guest appearances here!