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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.

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