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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Zoo History: Penguins on Parade

The walk-through aviary is one of the classic archetypes of zoo exhibition, with almost every zoo or aquarium featuring at least one example of this habitat.  Visitors (except those that are morbidly terrified of flying birds... of which there are a surprising number) greatly enjoy the chance to enter the habitat of zoo birds.  At some facilities, the situation is reversed, however.  There, the birds are given a chance to talk a walk among the humans.

Almost since the zoo first opened its gates, penguins have been the pride of the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland.  In January of 1914, a half-dozen of the flightless seabirds arrived from South Georgia, complements of a whaling expedition, becoming the first penguins seen in a zoological park.  One great first follows another, and within five years the zoo was celebrating the first hatch of a king penguin, incidentally also the first penguin hatched above the equator.  This was followed years later with the first hatch of a macaroni penguin, and later a gentoo.

With such a bustling penguin family, it's no wonder that keepers might have felt a little overworked and absent-minded (as keepers can sometimes be).  In 1951, a zookeeper mistakenly left the gate to the penguin exhibit open, and the birds began to march out of the exhibit.  Fortunately, escape proved to be fairly far from their collective mind, and instead of making a very-slow-run for the exits, they instead found their keeper and trooped behind him in a single-file line.

Today, watching the Penguin Parade is the highlight of any visit to the Edinburgh Zoo.  It provides an exciting opportunity for visitors to get closer than they ever would otherwise to some very charismatic birds, while at the same time providing exercise and enrichment to the penguins themselves.  If you think about it, it's sort of like a trip to the zoo for the birds, allowing them to file past the other animals, curiously inspecting them as they go.

Oh, you love penguins but don't think you'll be making it out to Scotland any time soon?  Don't worry about it.  An increasing number of zoos around the world are duplicating Edinburgh's Penguin Parade; never having been to Edinburgh myself, the picture on this article comes from Kentucky's Newport Aquarium.  Other facilities have tried it with flamingos or cranes.

And if first-exhibitions, first-hatchings, AND the Penguin Parade weren't enough to put Edinburgh on the map, penguin-wise, there's more.  The zoo also is the home of the famous Brigadier General Sir Nils Olav.  What does a general have to do with penguins.  Simple - he IS a penguin (I know, it sounds weird, but it's all explained here).

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

From the News: Hamerton Zoo Keeper Dies in "Freak Tiger Accident"

As zookeepers and aquarists we have, hands down, the most amazing jobs in the world.  And then, every once in a while, something happens to remind all of us how dangerous it can be.

Yesterday, Rosa King, a carnivore keeper at the Hamerton Zoo, lost her life in an incident involving one of the tigers she cared for.  She was 34-years old.

Picture Credit: Hamerton Zoo Facebook page

When tragedies like this occur, people react differently.  Sure, the anti-zoo folks will parade this as additional evidence of why animals shouldn't be in zoos (note: if I'm ever killed on the job, I will personally haunt forever any jerk who tries capitalizing off of my death as a fundraiser for their organization).  There's often a tendency for people to blame the facility, claiming that something must have been inadequate about it.

Regrettably, I've also seen keepers in other cases try to find fault with the victim.  That, I think, is mostly fear - people are desperate to convince themselves that this was the other person's "fault", a mistake that they themselves would never make, to convince themselves that nothing like this could ever happen to them.

The truth is, sometimes it's just what the headline says it is - a freak accident.  Sometimes the best trained keepers in perfectly acceptable facilities with animals they know very well still come together in a tragic way.  The details of this incident are still coming out.  I see no advantage in poking a raw wound on the hearts of the staff of this zoo, trying to find fault that might not even be there.

The zoo staff and the police are to be congratulated for the quick, effective, and professional manner in which they evacuated the facility and made sure all visitors were gotten to safety.  I am so, so, sorry for their loss, and wish them privacy and space to grieve for their fallen friend.

Monday, May 29, 2017

When Birds Fly The Coop

This weekend, the North Carolina Zoo is asking residents to be on the look-out for a pair of leggy fugitives.  A pair of secretarybirds has escaped from an off-exhibit holding pen and is roaming the surrounding area.  The zoo has set up a hotline - 336-879-7610 - to request information if the birds are seen.  Members of the public are asked not to try and capture them for fear of injuring the birds or potentially scaring them off.

Few animal escapes cause more stress for staff members than birds.  Not so much secretarybirds, cranes, flamingos, and other birds that are normally kept in open-air paddocks.  Mostly aviary birds.  Catching an flying bird on the wing is an enormous headache, as you can imagine.  With the ability to fly, there really is nothing stopping a bird from taking off for Mexico the second it clears the enclosure.

The only factors that really will prevent a bird escape from going downhill super-fast are aspects of the bird's own behavior.  Knowing this is what has allowed me to capture escapees the two times that I've had birds fly the coop.

The first incident was a screech owl, on his way back from a vet check.  I was carrying the crate (by the handle) back to the enclosure... when suddenly my load got a lot lighter.  Looking down, I saw the bottom half of the crate had just... dropped off.  The tennis-ball sized owl took off, with me in hot pursuit.  Fortunately, owls are disinclined to fly much during the day, when they are exposed.  This is especially true for very tiny owls, which are vulnerable to all sorts of predators.  Instead, the little fellow took refuge in a maple tree, about twenty feet tall, not fifty yards from his enclosure, still in the zoo.

We hatched a plan where our smallest, nimblest keeper - who was not me - would climb the tree with a hose and lightly mist the owl.  The water would make it too heavy to fly, allowing her to then grab it with a glove.  I was stationed below with a net, ready to catch the owl - or, possibly the keeper - if things went south.

They did.

The keeper in the tree misunderstood her mission and hit the owl with the full brunt of the hose, basically power-washing it out of the tree.  Luckily, I was ready with my net and caught it in time, and soon the furious, sodden-wet bird was back in its enclosure, dripping irritably.

The second incident involved a parrot that had gotten out from its aviary; fortunately for us, parrots are pretty sociable, and he'd left his twenty best friends behind in the aviary.  Not willing to venture too far, he stuck around long enough for us to try - and fail - many attempts to either trap him or net him.  Some of the most memorable efforts involved keepers balancing precariously on top of the enclosure (which, upon further reflection, was not meant to support the weight of three keepers), racing back and forth along the beams, waving nets.

Finally, we had an epiphany and brought in the big guns... I mean, nets.

A mist net is a long, barely visible net of fine filaments, used by scientists to trap birds and bats for research.  You stretch it across an opening in a forest where flying animals are funneled to and boom, it smacks right into it and becomes entangled.  Their use is very heavily permitted - one irresponsibly used net, say, one that was left up and then ignored, could claim the lives of untold birds and bats.  Luckily, we knew a scientist in our area who had a net and had a permit, so we set it up.

That same afternoon, not twenty minutes after we'd hung the net, that parrot was flying circles around us, cocky as ever... we suddenly it looked like he'd be frozen solid in midair.  I couldn't even see the net from where I'd been standing.  It doesn't seem that he could have seen it either.

Catching escaped birds always makes a great story in retrospect... if you get the bird.  While it's in progress, however, it's ulcer-inducing to the extreme, and I count myself very lucky that we were able to get the birds back in each case.  While we've been lucky in the past, I'd rather be careful in the future.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Zoo - Season 2?

Calling all fans of Animal Planet's awesome TV series, The Zoo!.  Animal Planet's Facebook page put out a survey today soliciting opinions of the series.  It seems to be a tool that they are using to consider whether to renew the series or not.

The Bronx Zoo is, of course, enormous, and with its conservation projects spanning the globe, there is an almost endless list of stories that they could share.  Still, I threw out the suggestion that maybe they could try different facilities for a season.  Behind the scenes at an aquarium would be really cool, for instance.  Or maybe a season that goes behind the scenes of lots of the smaller zoos - sort of, see how the other half lives.

Please give your feedback, and hopefully we'll be enjoying this show again soon!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Zoo Joke: Bird Auction

Francis, the Bird Curator of the City Zoo, is in search of some new parrots for a display, so he goes to a bird auction.  The auctioneer steps up and announces that the final bird for sale that day is an exceptionally beautiful, rare macaw, and that the bidding will start at $2,000.

Determined to win it, Francis bids immediately, only to hear a voice from somewhere else in the hall call out "$3,000!"

Miffed, Francis raises his bird to $4,000, only to hear that same voice call out "$5,000!"

Undeterred, Francis goes up to $6,000, only for that same voice again to shout out $7,000!"

And so the bidding goes on and on between Francis and his unseen opponent, before the later finally relents.  Francis steps up to the auctioneer later that day to pay his $20,000 and claim his prize.

"That's the most expensive parrot I've ever bought," he confesses to the auctioneer as he starts to fill out the check.  "I hope at the very least that he's a talker."

The auctioneer smirks slightly.  "Of course he is.  Exactly who did you think was bidding against you the whole time?"

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Nothin' but Net

In my first job out of college, I moved across the country to take a position in the reptile house of a southern zoo.  About a month after another new keeper and I started, the whole staff went out after work one night to a British-themed pub.  Pints were drunk.  Fish and chips were consumed.  Darts were played.

I'm really, really bad at darts.  Or anything that involves throwing object with precision.  So bad, in fact, that the people standing directly behind me begin to wince whenever I came up, convinced I was somehow going to launch the dart in the exact wrong direction and nail them in the eyes.  As I walked up to the cork-board to pull out of all my misses, one of my new coworkers cackled, "Hell, son, if that's your depth perception, I'm gonna hate seeing you learn to hook cobras!"

He needn't have worried.  I'm pretty damn good with a snake-stick.  And I'm pretty awesome, if I do say so myself, with a net.  They ever make netting hawks an Olympic event, and I'm bringing back some golds.

It startled me the first time I went to net birds.  I have, as I just mentioned, no skill at throwing things, or otherwise launching things (like golf balls).  With a net, however, it's nothing that you throw, or lose control of.  It's an extension of your arm.  You are able to make lots of slight adjustments swiftly, which is useful in response to a small, fast-flying bird.   You can feint one way then double back and catch the bird when it seeks to evade you.  You can launch it straight up, or turn it suddenly.
At first glimpse, netting birds in a large aviary seems impossible.  In some cases, it probably is, especially when the aviary is absolutely huge and very tall.  In those cases, keepers may resort to traps or catch-pens to capture birds.  A small cage is baited with food, the bird enters, the trap is sprung.  It's not that much more sophisticated than a box propped up with a stick tied to a string, a la Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.

In smaller aviaries, it can still be challenging to catch birds.  Thankfully, they tend to become fairly predictable after a while, developing flight patterns.  Often, they stick to these flight patterns faithfully, making it easy to predict when and where they will be - and having your net ready.  It's important to be mindful of the birds' and their stress-levels as you try to make a capture - not just that of the bird you are after, but all of the others in the aviary who are being stressed by your efforts.  What you absolutely don't want is to push the birds too hard, allowing them to succumb to capture myopathy, which can be lethal.

You want to know your net for the task.  How big and deep is the net?  I've tried to capture tamarins with a net that was so shallow that they popped out of it the moment I caught them.  How light is it?  For small, fast-flying birds, you're going to need to be able to handle it over your head for quite a while and move it swiftly.  What size is the mesh?  It's obviously no good to net an animal, and then watch it wriggle its way out before you can extract it.  How strong is it?  Will the animal rip it apart?  Be careful about the heavy rim of the net - you don't want to accidentally bring it down on a wing, leg, or neck and cause injury.

In recent years, the expansion of training programs in zoos has helped to reduce the need to net birds and other small animals, as positive reinforcement can be used to coax an animal in.  It's much safer and less stressful for the animal (and the keeper), and can be far more reliable.  That being said, netting is still a very valuable skill for a keeper to be practiced in, whether its snagging an animal that just refuses to be caught up when it needs to be, or its capturing a wild animal that's made its way into your zoo.

So I'm going to keep practicing my netting.  After all, you never know what's going to happen before the next Olympics.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Great Blue Turaco (Corythaeola cristata)

Great Blue Turaco
Corythaeola cristata (Vieillot, 1816)

Range: West and Central Africa
Habitat: Rainforest, Montane Forest
Diet: Fruits, Leaves, Flowers, Buds, Insects.  Chicks fed regurgitated leaves
Social Grouping: Pairs, Small Flocks.  Territorial Year-Round
Reproduction: Parents build a stick nest in a tree, lay 2 pale blue eggs.  Eggs are incubated by both parents and hatch after about 31 days.  Chicks leave nest at 6 weeks, but may be watched over by parents for 3 months.
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Largest species of turaco.  Body length is 70-76 centimeters, weight between 800 and 1200 grams.  Males are slightly smaller than females
  • Sexes look alike.  Turquoise-blue feathers, turning slightly gray on the face, which is crowned by a black crest.  The tail has a broad, black band near the end.  The beak is bright yellow, tipped with bright red.  Some greenish-yellow on the lower breast and belly, fading into a reddish-brown on the lower belly.  The legs and feet and black.  Juveniles duller than adults
  • Very vocal, call is a deep, guttural sound ("kok kok kok") with soft trills.  Often call at dawn and dusk, especially for courtship.  Other courtship displays involved chasing, mutual feeding, and raising and lowering the crest and tail
  • Older chicks will sometimes stay with their parents to help assist with the next clutch of eggs
  • Very agile at climbing among the branches, like parrots.  Typically come to the ground only to drink and to bathe.  Not very good fliers, only fly a short distance
  • Hunted for its meat as well as for its feathers, used in making good luck talismans.  Tolerant of habitat disturbance and can live alongside humans if not hunted

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Walk Among the Wings

There were many exhibits that I enjoyed immensely during my recent visit to Zoo Miami, but Wings of Asia is the one that made the biggest impression on me.  Part of it was its size – every time I thought that the aviary was finished, I discovered an entirely new section to explore.  Part of it was its beauty, from the trickling creek to the peak of the ruined temple.  Part of it, of course, was the birds, and my pleasure at seeing so many species flying, swimming, and scurrying all about me.

And, of course, part of it was the fact that I was right there on the inside.

The walk-through aviary is not a new concept.  It dates back to antiquity, at least back to when wealthy ancient Romans would dine in their aviaries… sometimes dining on birds that had previously that day been flying in that same aviary.  Almost every zoo and aquarium I have ever been to has had a walk-through.  Many have had several.  They are perhaps one of the most common exhibit archetypes, and unlike other exhibit models – bear pits, monkey houses – they never seem to fall out of favor.

They are also one of the most difficult bird exhibits to manage.

You have all of the challenges of any mixed-species exhibit.  Will birds predate one another – either on the adults or, far more commonly, the eggs and chicks of other species?  Will birds compete with one another or view each other as rivals? Will birds steal each other’s food?  Can the enclosure be made comfortable for all species present? 

Then, in the mix you throw in the least predictable, most dangerous species on earth – humans.

The most obvious threat is the risk of birds being injured, either deliberately or accidentally, as birds wander underfoot, or trustingly land too close to an inquisitive child.  Injuries can happen even if the humans involved mean well, or wish to have no direct interaction at all.  I’ve seen overly friendly birds unexpectedly land on zoo visitors, who then proceed to thrash and flail and, in general, freak out. 

On that same note, you also have to worry about the possibility of visitors being injured by birds.   When I rounded a corner in Zoo Miami and found myself face-to-beak with a pair of Sarus cranes, no barriers in between us, I came pretty darn close to trampling my girlfriend to death making a break for the exit.  Not that those cranes had done anything slightly menacing towards me… I just don’t trust cranes.  Especially not ones bigger than me.

A lack of barriers means it’s also that much easier for visitors to feed birds, either intentionally or unintentionally through spills or drops of people food.  This in turn can lead birds to a) spend more time on the visitor path, where they can be potentially injured or b) learn to beg aggressively.  Plus, potato chips aren’t good for birds.  Heck, they aren’t that great for us, either.

Lastly, there is the risk of escape.  Aviaries have double-doors for people to enter without allowing birds to escape, but on a busy day with lots of folks coming in (especially gentlemen/ladies who were brought up to hold the door for others) there can be lots of openings for a quick-flying bird.

That’s a lot of things that could go wrong.  It’s easy to imagine a zoo director, especially one averse to lawsuits and bad press (as all of them are) saying, “Why bother?”

Elementary.  Because walk-through aviaries, especially well-crafted ones, are magic.

There really is no experience like sharing a space with a wild animal, or in this case, several wild animals.  Not knowing where the animal is likely to appear, and perhaps finding it using a combination of your senses – a rustle in the leaves overhead, a flash of color, or perhaps a fishy smell that tells you a nest in nearby (visitors are advised not to use “touch” or “taste” when appreciating aviary birds).   A walk-through aviary instills a sense of discovery among its visitors.  They don’t view the bird anymore.  They experience it. 

Another advantage is that they tend to result in larger habitats than a traditional aviary would provide.  That is because they have to accommodate the visitor walkways and buffer spaces.  Sure, they may not use these places too much when the zoo is open and visitors are present, but on slow days or after-hours, they are open.   I’ve always been daunted by the prospect of managing birds – especially smaller, flightier species like passerines and doves – in large aviaries, for fear that they’d prove too difficult to monitor, or to catch up for vet procedures, or even to make sure they are feeding.  Still, the thought of seeing them flying in such a spacious exhibit, getting plenty of exercise and lots of enrichment from a complex, spatially-varied environment, has made me feel that it must be worth the effort.

Two caveats for walk-throughs, however.  One, there must, must, MUST be sufficient places for birds to get away from visitors.  I have seen some aviaries which were basically walk-in closets.  In those cases, it would be best to have excluded the “walk-through” part.  Birds should be able to be comfortably distant from zoo guests if they choose so.  Let close-up proximity to the public be their decision, not your imposition.  Two, zoo staff must constantly monitor the birds in the aviary to identify those that are engaging in risky behaviors – risky either for themselves or for humans.  I have a bird in my collection who came to us from a walk-through at another zoo.  His keepers decided that he wasn’t working out in that type of setting when they started seeing visitors taking selfies with this (chicken-sized) bird perched on their shoulders.

In recent years, zoos and aquariums have begun to expand upon the walk-through aviary concept, adding additional species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  Among the species that I’ve seen sharing walk-through aviaries are squirrels, small primates, fruit bats, small antelope, sloths, and turtles and tortoises.  Many zoos in recent years have added kangaroo walk-through exhibits.  I’ve seen pictures (but not in person) of visitors walking among capybara.

I could even imagine a zoo-of-the-future consisting of a series of football-field sized enclosures, where visitors walk through first an African kopje, then an Asian rainforest, then an Australian desert, and so on.  For some species, walk-through enclosures will never be practical (looking at you, big cats and bears).  Still, I’m sure that increasingly-innovating zoos and aquariums will continue to push the envelope in creating larger, more complex habitats that allow visitors to share space with an increasingly diverse array of animals. 

Then, the magic of a walk-through aviary could be recreated on an even grander scale.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

From the News: 200th Condor Chick Hatches at San Diego Zoo Safari Park

I thought I'd take a break from me blathering to share some really exciting news.  The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has announced the hatching of the 200th chick at its facility.  That's 200 condors hatched at San Diego, alone, many of which have been released into the wilds of the American west and Mexico.  All this for a species that came about as close to the brink of extinction as a bird can without tumbling over, a species many had been inclined to write up entirely..  It a poignant reminder that zoos matter, and - working together with our conservation partners - we can save species.

Celebrate by showing off your condor savvy and taking our condor trivia quiz!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Zoo Review: Zoo Miami

In the 1970s, the staff of Miami's Crandon Park Zoo, located on Key Biscayne, got a chance to do something that literally every other zoo in the United States would kill for - a chance to start over.  A brand new zoo was built on the Florida mainland, opening as the Miami Metro Zoo in 1980 and recently renamed Zoo Miami.  The old zoo was deemed too small and too exposed to the deadly hurricanes of south Florida.  The new facility, spread over 750 acres, is a gorgeous facility and the only subtropical zoo in the continental United States.

The first exhibit that visitors see upon approaching Zoo Miami is the flock of American flamingos, nosily squabbling around the edge of the their pool.  Unlike at any other zoo in the country, the flamingos aren't exotics - south Florida boasts of native, wild flamingos.  More Floridian natives are seen in the new Florida: Mission Everglades trail, located nearby.  Meandering down the sometimes confusing trails, visitors are exposed to a host of native species, many of which they could probably spend months in the Everglades without seeing, such as American black bear and Florida panther.  There are raccoons, bobcats, bald eagles, a host of non-releasable waterbirds - pelicans, ibises, herons - and, of course, alligators aplenty.  Animals are seen from elevated bridges, underwater viewing windows, or eye-level Plexiglas windows, depending on the display.  The exhibit is a fun chance for kids to explore habitats in different ways - maybe riding an mini airboat through the exhibit, or taking a slide through the otter pool, or even crawling through an underwater tunnel that passes through the habitat of a massive American crocodile.

In most zoos, South America is represented by a rainforest building.  In the tropical weather of Miami, the wildlife of the green continent is too expansive to be held in a single building.  Amazon and Beyond, centered around a South American mercado plaza, is a three-lobed trail that takes visitors from the cloud forests of the Andes to the bottom of the Amazon River.  Along the way, they will encounter giant otters, giant anteaters, jaguars, howler monkeys, and Orinoco crocodiles, among other species.  There is a walkthrough aviary, a tank of massive Amazonian fishes, a stunningly beautiful waterfowl lagoon, and one of the most impressive Neotropical reptile collections I've ever seen - Miami is America's gateway to Latin America, and many smuggled reptiles are confiscated coming into the city.  The result - a host of rarely seen species, including some I'd never even heard of before and exhibited nowhere else.  Many of the exhibits occupy both sides of the trail, with animals either passing overhead (as with the harpy eagles and jaguars, to say nothing of the very innovative bat exhibit) or under the feet of visitors, such as the giant otters.  Habitats are lush and well-planted, creating the most realistic rainforest vibe I've ever encountered in a zoo (outside of Belize).

Tucked off into a corner of the zoo is a small Australian area, home to the zoo's koalas.  The ever popular marsupials - along with tree kangaroos - are tucked into two small habitats (the smallest koala exhibits that I've ever seen, but then again, koalas don't actually do anything, so why waste the space?).  Far more exciting are the animated New Guinea singing dogs.  In a tree nearby, a crocodile monitors basks at eye level with visitors filing by, but can be difficult to spot among the leafy branches.  Kangaroos and emus occupy a dusty yard across the path.

The oldest parts of the zoo are the Africa and Asia loops - of course, here "oldest" means back in 1980, so still very much keeping with modern zoo design.  The huge selection of African ungulates are kept in moated enclosures and includes okapi, gerenuk, addra gazelle, and an impressive breeding herd of giant eland, the world's largest antelope.  Visitors will also find zoo favorites such as lions, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, giraffes (with a feeding deck), Grevy's zebras, spotted hyenas, and the largest collection of pachyderms I'd ever seen - African and Asian elephants, Indian and black rhinoceroses, pygmy hippos, and Malayan tapirs.  If there is a show-stealer for these loops, however, it would have to be the tigers.  I think I actually gasped when I first saw the display - a recreation of Angkor Wat, with a pair of Sumatran tigers lounging in the grassy yard that sprawled out before it.  I assume that the temple ruins serve as the night house for the cats.  When one of the tigers got up, stretched, and walked right in front of the ruins, I think I heard the cameras of one hundred visitors click at once.

There is only one exhibit at Miami which surpasses the tiger exhibit.  I'm speaking of the zoo's most famous exhibit - Wings of Asia.  To call Wings of Asia  an aviary is sort of like calling the Lourve an art gallery.  Over an acre in size, it is a massive, multi-level habitat where birds as large as man-sized Sarus cranes can be lost from view along the curving waterways and dense vegetation.  Wandering down the trail, you'll probably first notice the big birds - painted storks, green peafowl, or maybe the great Indian hornbills located in a side aviary - and be so intent on them that you'll probably be shocked when you finally notice the little banded rails skittering around your feet.  Take a path up the hill, or climb the stairs of a ruined temple to better observe the smaller flying birds - songbirds and pigeons - or to better appreciate the size of the aviary from an elevated vantage point.  Be sure to check out the diverse waterfowl collection, not only from across the creek but through underwater viewing windows, where you may also spot Fly river turtles or painted terrapins.  Outside of the aviary, the link between the past and present of birds is brought home with dinosaur sculptures.  Wings of Asia was decimated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but has reopened with all of its former glory... and then some.

Hidden around the zoo are other exhibits - lemurs, Komodo dragons, spider monkeys - and I know this brief review hardly does justice to the sprawling splendor of Zoo Miami.  The zoo is so large that many visitors opt to take the monorail from point to point across the facility - it's an option I rejected out of fear of missing anything, no matter how minute.  It turns out, I still missed things - I simply did not leave myself enough time to explore the zoo, and pretty much had to be shoved out of the gate at closing by the staff.  This, I suppose, means I'll just have to go back for another round.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Bird Day at the Spa

Besides flowers and chocolates and ridiculously overpriced Hallmark cards, some of the most popular gifts that people give for Mother's Day are gift cards to spas.  Honestly, the thought of going to a spa has never appealed to me - which is a bit ironic, since I can give a pretty spiffy pedicure, if I do say so myself.  Of course, I tend to use a Dremel instead of a file... and my customers are generally (not always) manually restrained by someone else, which I'm told seldom happens at the finer spas.

Perhaps I should backtrack for a second...

In the wild, birds wear down their beaks and talons naturally, just going about their daily routine.  In many cases, zoo birds do to.  Sometimes, however, they get a bit overgrown and need a bit of extra TLC from the staff.  Typically, birds in large aviaries with lots of varied perching and incentive to fly about wear their claws down just fine.  Birds wear down their beaks when feeding on hard food items (scraping against bones, or working on hard-skinned fruits or nuts), but those fed softer diets may not do as much natural maintenance.  

All of this means keepers must trim the offending beaks and talons, or face the problems of severe overgrowth.  For example, too-long talons may curve inward and poke the birds in the sole of the foot, causing a wound (what keepers often call a bumble).

Trimming is often done with a Dremel or similar power tool, used on a low setting so as to not accidentally injure or rattle the birds.  The claws and beaks themselves are made of keratin, the same substance as our hair or fingernails, so the act of trimming them does no damage to the birds themselves.  Done by a skilled handler, the process takes just a minute or two.

I'm only semi-skilled.  Despite several years of doing this, I still don't have the best eye for what the beak or claws are supposed to look like, resulting in lots of stopping, looking, judging, grumbling, and resuming.  Combine that with a handler who doesn't always maintain the best grip, and sometimes things get a little hairy... or feathery.  

In an effort to make the process less stressful for birds, many keepers have begun training their charges to allow for voluntary nail trims.  The bird is perched and offered treats, while the keeper is able to lift one foot, then the other, and gently file the nails down.  A trained behavior means that it can be performed more often (without the hassle of netting and grabbing), which in turn means that the job typically takes less time to perform.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Mother's Day

It wouldn't be May without a belated Mother's Day card.  Happy Mother's Day to the moms of keepers and aquarists, those who are mothers, and the staff who serve as mother-and-father to the animals at their facilities... no matter which of the following best describes you.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Book Review: Song of the Dodo - Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction

“Dispersal ability, size change, loss of dispersal ability, endemism, relictualism, archipelago speciation, disharmony, and the rest – they are all characteristic of insular evolution and insular ecosystems, but nothing on that list is more characteristic than extinction.  A high jeopardy of extinction comes with the territory.  Islands are where species go to die.”

Flightless.  Trusting.  Unique.  Doomed.  About 300 years ago, the world lost a very special bird with the extinction of the giant pigeon that we know as the dodo.  Hailing from the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, the dodo is but one example of the fabulous, unique wildlife that evolved in isolation on the world’s islands.   Among other familiar examples are the Komodo dragon, the Galapagos giant tortoise, the New Guinea birds of paradise, and the lemurs of Madagascar.  Islands serve as spectacular laboratories of speciation, simplified ecosystems which have taught us much of what we know of evolution.

Lately, it seems that they’ve also taught us much of what we are learning about extinction. 
The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction is the opus of nature writer David Quammen (also the author of Monsterof God).  It’s a masterpiece of evolutionary writing, managing to encompass everything from the drama of Darwin and Wallace’s race for primacy in unveiling the theory to the contemporary debate of how large and how many protected areas a species needs to survive.  Tying this book together is one central theme – in evolution, islands are everything.

Islands, Quammen explains, are simplified ecosystem with fewer niches, fewer species, fewer connections, and fewer habitats than are seen on the mainland.  In this respect, they act as sort of the “See Spot Run” of evolutionary theory – they are much less complicated than continental ecosystems, and therefore much easier to understand.  It’s no coincidence that the two pioneers behind the Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection came to their conclusions after doing fieldwork on islands – Darwin in the Galapagos, Wallace in the Malay Archipelago. 

Islands are defined by their isolation, and Quammen expends considerable time in exploring how they are populated, and by which species.  Some are former chunks of the continent which get isolated through the rise and fall of the seas – hence why some Indonesian islands have tigers and others do not.  Others are formed from the actions of volcanoes, and must be populated by pioneers, flying, swimming, or rafting their way across the ocean.  If nothing else, the idea of islands populated by elephants swimming out to sea is pretty fascinating. 

In time, islanders become defined by their isolation, and take on new, fantastic roles different from their mainland relatives.  A monitor lizard becomes a ten-foot-long titan.  An elephant becomes a dwarf the size of a pony.  Lemurs cling to survival while their mainland relatives are competed and predated out of existence.  One species of finch evolves into a dozen.  And, yes, one awkward pigeon becomes flightless and fearless, leading to certain trouble when humans eventually show up.
And humans always eventually show up.  Sometimes, the islanders get really unlucky, and the humans bring their “friends” – rats, mongooses, feral cats and dogs, or maybe an invasive,bird-devouring tree snake.  Which is the other point that Quammen brings up – island species are, as a whole, far more vulnerable to extinction than their mainland counterparts.

The better chunk of Quammen’s book doesn’t even take place on islands… at least not in the conventional sense.  He’s not the first to notice that many animals on the mainland are becoming isolated in islands of habitat, adrift in a sea of human-dominated landscape that is as inhospitable to the imprisoned animals as the ocean itself.  A tiger in a national park in India is just as cut off from other tigers as a tiger on an Indonesian island.  In these cases, studying actual island ecosystems provides a useful gauge for how these human-surrounded islands will behave… and what species will survive on them.

In his globe-trotting expose of islands, David Quammen takes the reader across the globe, from a feeding demonstration on Komodo (where a hapless goat is sacrificed to the maws of hungry dragons) to a tiny patch of rainforest in the middle of what used to be the unbroken Amazon.  He also introduces the reader to a variety of scientists who brave extraordinary difficulties (in at least one case, involving being marooned and having to eat your study subjects) in the pursuit of knowledge.

The Song of the Dodo is a brick of a book, and feeling its heft in your hand (or seeing the page count on your eReader) can make it a little daunting.  Don’t be fooled.  From his elegant metaphor of the introduction to the satisfying conclusion, it’s an enjoyable read… except for the parts where Quammen tries to explain mathematical formulas.  Even he doesn’t like those parts.  More importantly, it provides an excellent footing in what island biogeography is, how it relates to the extinction crisis of today, and, above all, why you should care.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Dodo in the Aviary

With its hefty size, imposing red eyes, and delicate, lacy crest, the Victoria crowned pigeon isn't a bird that you'd ever mistake for the plump street pigeons scavenging hot dog buns on a New York City street corner.  Still, it's not the largest pigeon species of modern times.  That honor belonged to Raphus cucullatus, a flightless, turkey-sized bird from the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of East Africa.  I use the past tense because Raphus cucullatus is now, regrettably, extinct.  In fact, apart from the dinosaurs, it's probably the most famous example of an extinct animal that there is.

You know it better as the dodo.

It was done in by the usual suspects of island birds - natural rarity, introduced competitors and predators, and the bad luck of having evolved in the absence of ecocidal bipedal primates who were more than happy to club the predator-naive birds for a meal.  It's difficult to say for certain when the dodo breathed its last, but it was believed to have been extinct by the 1700- think of it, by the time George Washington was born, "Dead as a Dodo" would have already been a valid saying.  A few specimens were sent to Europe and Asia, where they were displayed as rarities and novelties, but the dodo didn't survive to see the establishment of the modern zoo.  In this, it is unlike the quagga and the thylacine, the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet.  No actual zoo - established by a zoological society, staffed by professional keepers - ever kept a dodo.

Which got me thinking - what would it have been like?  Suppose a few dodos had clung to survival?  Perhaps a few had survived on a predator-free islet, or some enterprising collector had scooped a few up before the wild population vanished, as had happened with Pere David's deer?  Suppose the dodo was still with us - IUCN Critically Endangered, possibly even Extinct in the Wild, but not an uncommon feature of zoos, sort of like the Guam rail or Micronesian kingfisher?

I'm not talking about the conservation "what ifs..."  I'm just wondering what it would have been like to be a dodo keeper.

How would we have exhibited them?  Dodos are flightless, so they could have been kept outside in yard exhibits, though presumably some zoos would keep them in covered aviaries, perhaps more for protection from native predators than for fear that they birds would someone sprout wings.  What would their enclosures require - would they wade in pools?  Bathe in the dust?  How cold tolerant would they be?  Would be need to exhibit them indoors, or would they be comfortable outside for most of the year, maybe with a shed with a heat lamp being sufficient shelter for the winter?

Would they do well in mixed-species exhibits?  With what?  Maybe we would be housing them with Aldabra tortoises, another Indian Ocean islander that suffered tremendously at the hand of man.  Perhaps in an aviary with their closest living relatives, the Nicobar pigeon and the crowned pigeons.  How would dodos get along with other species?  Would they reveal a previously-unsuspected bully-streak?  Or would they be meek and docile?

What would we feed them?  Would they have a favorite fruit?  Would we perhaps do feeding demos, watching them gulp wedges of fruit, picking at their grain later, resignedly, only when they'd eaten all of the good stuff first?  What veterinary issues would we associate with them?

What would their personality be like?  Would new keepers enter their pens warily, keeping a rake handy at all times to fend off that massive beak?  Would they be very shy and (pun intended) flighty, running around in a panic as soon as a keeper approached?  Or, as I suspect, would their insular fearlessness stay with them in a zoo setting?  I like to think that would be the case - that we'd be walking among them as the placidly waddle about, sometimes playfully nibbling our boots and being good-naturedly pushed away.

Perhaps most importantly - would they breed well in zoos?  If so, we could imagine the possibility of a Mauritius once again walked by the dodo.  An extensive predator-clearing campaign could we waged, driving mongooses, monkeys, and the like back (similar efforts are already underway to protect the still-surviving birdlife of the island).

The thing is, we'll never know.  We have no photographs of the dodo, no video clips, no sound recordings.  We have a few paintings and some skeletal remains and some firsthand accounts.  That's all we know about the dodo.  We'll never know what breeding displays they engage in.  No zoo vet will ever formulate a diet based on their nutritional needs.  No schoolchildren will ever laugh uproariously as a dodo poops in front of them.  No zookeeper will every rush to her incubator, watching a dodo chick start to crack its shell with tears of excitement in her eyes.

The thought of any of this only just occurred to me, maybe in the last day or so.  I don't know why it's sticking with me so much.  If the dodo had survived, for most people, it would be just another bird, one among 10,000 species that we have on earth.  No more striking or unusual, perhaps, than that Victoria crowned pigeon.  Perhaps it's knowing that we'll never have a dodo that makes the thought of it so extraordinary.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Victoria Crowned Pigeon (Goura victoria)

Victoria Crowned Pigeon
Goura victoria (Fraser, 1844)

Range: Indonesia, New Guinea
Habitat: Wetlands, Palm Forests
Diet: Fallen Fruit, Berries, Seeds, Insects, Snails
Social Grouping: Flocks of 2-10
Reproduction: Monogamous for life.  Courtship behavior consists of bowing the head and wagging the tail.  Nest in a platform of sticks and leaves low in the trees or in thickets.  Female lays single egg, incubated by both parents for 30 days.  Juveniles fledge at 4 weeks old, sexually mature at 15 months old.
Lifespan: 25 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix II

  • One of the world's largest living pigeons (rivaled only by the other crested pigeon species).  Body length 75-85 centimeters, weigh 3.5 kilograms
  • Body feathers are blue-gray, purplish on the chest, fading to a gray belly.  The head is crowned with a lacy, fan-like crest, tipped in white
  • Wings make a loud, clapping sound when taking flight.  Mating call is a deep hoota-hoota-hoota, while males defending territories give a whup-up, whup-up call
  • Named for the nineteenth-century British monarch Queen Victoria
  • Two subspecies.  Goura victoria beccarii is found on mainland New Guinea, and is larger and lighter-colored than G. v. victoria, found in the surrounding islands. 
  • Threatened by habitat loss and hunting for meat; nestlings are collected and reared for food.  Feathers and crest used for head dresses.  Easily taken by hunters due to tameness, gregarious nature, and unwillingness to fly

Monday, May 8, 2017

Happy Birthday Sir David!

"The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?"

-Sir David Attenborough

Today we celebrate the 91st birthday of every nature lovers' favorite TV star, Sir David Attenborough.  Not a star, you say?  Hogwash.  About half of my DVD shelf is taken up with his handiwork - Planet Earth, Blue Planet, Life of Birds, Life of Mammals, Life in Cold Blood, and so on.

Not a lot of people realize this, but Sir David began his animal-filming experience with zoos.  After filming a few segments at the London Zoo, Attenborough and one of the curators hatched a scheme to start filming some of the zoo's collecting expeditions; this, of course, was back in the day when a significant number of zoo animals were still obtained from the wild.  The result was Sir David's first series, Zoo Quest, taking place in rainforests across the world, from Sierra Leone to New Guinea, and included the first television footage ever of Komodo dragons.  The quest for the elusive white-necked rockfowl of West Africa proved such a crowd pleaser that, as the series was airing, episode by episode, over BBC, Attenborough found himself being stopped by strangers on the street, wanting to know if the bird would be caught in the end or not.

Over the course of his 91 years, Sir David has produced some beautiful work with BBC, featuring animals, habitats, and behaviors never filmed before.  His greatest acheivement, however, has been shining a light on some of our planet's most extraordinary creatures and sounding a call to arms to protect them.  I think back to all of the excitement that swirled around the release of Planet Earth II a few months ago, and hearing people who I've never heard express any interest in animals before talking about it excitedly.  That is Sir David's gift - taking a magical world and helping everyone else understand the magic of it.  Hopefully, he has another 90-odd years of magic left in him.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Sporcle Quiz: Sporcle at the Zoo - California Condor

I'm continuing with "Sporcle at the Zoo" with the next quiz in the series - the California condor.  One of my main sources for this quiz was the excellent book bu John Nielsen, Condor: To the Brink and Back - the Life and Times of One Giant Bird.  I've never seen a California condor in the wild (and have only seen one in a zoo twice) but to do so is one of my biggest bird-watching ambitions.  Enjoy!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Asian Songbird Crisis

The illegal trade in endangered species and their parts has its tentacles spread across the world, but if it has a hub, it would perhaps be Southeast Asia.  Here, their is an almost insatiable demand for rhino horn, pangolin scale, bear bile, turtle flesh, and virtually every other animal byproduct that you can imagine.  Among the species being lost to the trades are some of the regions smaller, but most beautiful, residents - the songbirds of Indonesia.

For almost as long as humans have lived in Indonesia, they've taken pleasure and pride in keeping songbirds.  As a traveler to the region recently explained to me, a successful man must be able to boast of three things - a house, a spouse, and a bird in a cage.  Unlike the first two, the later tends to be treated as somewhat disposable, more akin to cut roses than a family pet.  As an increasingly large middle class develops in the islands, more people find themselves needing to prove their success... by getting a pet bird.  You get one, it dies, you get a new one.

The result?  Widespread capture, smuggling, and sale of songbirds, including some critically endangered species - the Javan green magpie, the black-winged mynah, and, perhaps most famous of all, the Bali mynah.  As with flowers, not all birds are created equally in the eyes of the consumer (which is why we give roses and not dandelions for Valentine's Day).  The more beautiful a bird is, the more it is sought and traded in, the rarer it ends up becoming.  The rarer it becomes, the higher the price it commands, the more of a status symbol it becomes.  The situation is not helped by the fact that Indonesia is a nation of islands.  Island species tend to be less abundant by nature than those on the continents.

What can be done?  Obviously, addressing the illegal trade is an important step.  Illegal trade means smuggling, which means birds stuffed into horrifically unsuitable containers, deprived of food and water, and ultimately, in many cases, dying.  The scope of the trade is enormous.  One survey found 14,000 birds of over 100 species for sale in Singapore over the span of four days.  About half of the birds represented were oriental white-eyes, a species once native to Singapore but recently extirpated.  The leading cause of its disappearance?  Over-collection for the pet trade.

The challenge is that keeping songbirds is an integral part of Indonesian culture.  Fortunately, it may be possible to address the decline of songbirds while still maintaining this tradition... with some changes.  For example, more of a focus can be on maintaining pet birds so they live full lives.  That means better enclosures, better diets, proper veterinary care, and social groups - or at least a partner.  Not only will this tremendously improve the quality of life for the individual birds, but it will also result in far fewer replacement birds being taken out of the wild.  Hopefully, the trend can develop so that owners take just as much pride from the set-up of their birds as they do for the birds themselves.

Captive-breeding is also an essential step.  It's already been considered a key reason that the Bali mynah has survived into the present.  Breeding birds not only provides insurance colonies for future reintroduction efforts.  It can also provide legal, captive-bred birds for the trade - birds that do not suffer the stress of capture and smuggling, and birds which will help undercut the demand for illegally captured birds.

Finally, there needs to be an educational component.  A deeper appreciation for mynahs, starlings, magpies, and other birds needs to be fostered in local people - not just as beautiful set pieces for homes, but as living creatures that can suffer and feel pain.  In addition, it needs to be remembered hat  Asia's songbirds are under severe threats, and not just from the caged bird trade.  Habitats are being lost.  Unique island species are in decline.  Pollution threatens air and water quality.  If these birds, which are such a focal part of Indonesia's heritage, are to survive the 21st century, then efforts to conserve them must begin now.  Otherwise, the forests of Java, Sumatra, and Borneo may fall eerily silent.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Caged Bird, by Maya Angelou

A free bird leaps 
on the back of the wind   
and floats downstream   
till the current ends 
and dips his wing 
in the orange sun rays 
and dares to claim the sky. 

But a bird that stalks 
down his narrow cage 
can seldom see through 
his bars of rage 
his wings are clipped and   
his feet are tied 
so he opens his throat to sing. 

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom. 

The free bird thinks of another breeze 
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees 
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn 
and he names the sky his own 

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams   
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream   
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied   
so he opens his throat to sing. 

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou wasn't writing about birds, of course - her poem is a metaphor for racism.  That poem does, however, serve as an excellent description of one of the great avian conservation challenges of our time, and one that I'll be writing about tomorrow - the Asian songbird crisis.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

From the News: Zoo Idaho prepares for unique exhibit

Zoo Idaho prepares for unique exhibit

I've always been a firm believer that zoos should do more to work with local endangered species and preserve local endangered habitats.  Zoo Idaho is taking it to a whole new level - an 8-acre habitat to aid in the breeding and reintroduction of an emblematic native species, the trumpeter swan.