Alala Chicks: Time to Move Out of Mom and Dad’s House!

Three alala chicks share a perch soon after being moved into a new aviary together.

Three alala chicks share a perch soon after being moved into a new aviary together.

Last year was momentous at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii. For the first time in over 20 years, alala (Hawaiian crows) successfully hatched and reared their own chicks in managed care, completely unassisted! Two chicks (a male and female) were raised by their mom, Po Mahina. To learn about her parent-rearing journey, read Alala: Does Mother Know Best? Another male chick was raised by a caring alala mom named Lolii. This gave us a total of three parent-reared chicks!

Before the species went extinct in the wild in 2002, young alala chicks were known to live with their parents until the following breeding season. Today I am happy to report that these three parent-reared chicks are doing fantastic. However, they just went through an experience that many animal species (humans included!) go through: the time to stretch your wings and move out of mom and dad’s house!

We wanted to move the chicks gradually and as stress-free as possible, so a few weeks ago we shifted them to the chamber next door to their parents. This way the chicks could still see, hear, and interact with their parents. Both the chicks and their parents hardly seemed bothered by this change! Then it was time for the big move. All of our alala are conditioned to come down to a hack box (a small room with sliding hatch doors) every day for their normal food pan. On the morning of the big move, the chicks were shut into their hack box, then quickly netted and placed into animal carriers. The chicks were then taken to their new home in a separate aviary, just a short car ride down the road. Once there, all three chicks were released into their new aviary at the same time.

Since Lolii’s chick was an only child, this was the first time for him to meet other chicks. We worried that he might have a harder time adjusting to living with other chicks, because getting used to new roommates takes some adjustment, whether you are bird or human! We also worried that Po Mahina’s chicks might gang up and bully Lolii’s chick, so we closely observed their interactions following the release. Our worry was needless, because everyone quickly worked out their differences, and at the end of the day, all three chicks were sitting together on the same perch!

What’s next for these three youngsters? For now, they will probably stay together for a couple of years until they become mature alala, around three years of age. During that time, their blue eyes will slowly start to transition to dark brown. Their bright pink gapes (corners of the mouth) will turn black like an adult’s. Instead of their boisterous begging vocalizations, they will soon sound like adults and call out to each other with an amazing repertoire of calls and songs.

What about those super moms? Po Mahina and Lolii’s breeding and nesting instincts are starting to kick back into gear. Now it’s time to turn on our alala video cameras so we can watch the parent-rearing process start all over again!

Amy Kuhar is a research associate at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii. Read her previous post, Nene Nest Fest 2014!


“Go potty,” Xiao Liwu

What a clever panda boy we have!

What a clever panda boy we have!

Many of you have wondered how we trained the San Diego Zoo’s panda youngster, Xiao Liwu, to provide a urine sample upon request. Teaching a bear to urinate on command takes a lot of patience and observation of the bear and his or her habits. We used a method called capturing a behavior.

We noticed that when “Mr. Wu” shifts off exhibit and goes into the tunnel, which has a concrete floor, he would, fairly regularly, go to the bathroom before he went into his bedroom. Urine is a very important tool for information about any animal to determine health or hormone levels. So, we started keeping a water syringe and extra apples with us when we started shifting him in at night. When we “caught” him going potty, we would say “go potty” and show him the syringe. When he was done, we would offer him his verbal cue, “Good,” and an apple reward.

After about two weeks of this, he started to go potty when we asked him to. We then use the syringe to collect his urine sample off the concrete floor, which is cleaned every day and night. No cup or pan needed!

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Yun Zi Travels to China, Part 2.


A New “Tree” for Woodpeckers

A yellow-naped woodpecker is hard at work.

A yellow-naped woodpecker is hard at work.

Nothing beats natural behavior. Allowing birds to use their evolved traits, behaviors, and abilities usually results in a healthier bird in both mind and body. We encourage natural foraging behaviors by hiding earthworms in loose soil for the kiwis to hunt. We do bug scatters in the diving duck aviary for the ducks to dive for (it is so cool to watch!). And we try to make available various nesting material the birds would look for and use in the wild. Hummingbirds get spider webs, weavers get thorny twigs, and woodpeckers get…hmm…how do you replicate the tall, thick, dead trees most woodpeckers prefer to use in the wild? The San Diego Zoo’s Horticulture department does such a good job at keeping the trees alive and healthy that there are not many dead trees available. Not to mention that it would be difficult to actually move those trunks into the exhibit!

Enter the cork nest! The ingenious box was developed by curator Peter Shannon and his team at Albuquerque Biological Park. The nest box has plywood sheets on the top, bottom, and three sides. The fourth side is open, exposing the cork. The idea is that the cork is hard enough to provide the birds a tough substance to chip away at but is soft enough for them to still make progress. Here’s a photo essay and video of what happened…

On February 3, 2014, I used a tool to make a small indent in the hard cork on the front of the nest box and installed the box in the yellow-napped woodpecker’s Picus chlorolophus exhibit, which is just up the hill from the turtle exhibit on Tiger Trail.

#1: On February 3, 2014, I used a tool to make a small indent in the hard cork on the front of the nest box and installed the box in the yellow-napped woodpecker’s Picus chlorolophus exhibit, which is just up the hill from the turtle exhibit on Tiger Trail.

Within hours, the male was clinging to the front of the nest box and was working away at the starter hole I had made! You can see that the woodpeckers are much better at making circles than I am…how embarrassing.

Within hours, the male was clinging to the front of the nest box and was working away at the starter hole I had made! You can see that the woodpeckers are much better at making circles than I am…how embarrassing.

After congratulating myself for thinking about making the starter hole, I walked into work on February 9 to see this. Hmm, obviously I didn’t put the starter hole in the right place and the birds had come up with their own location.

After congratulating myself for thinking about making the starter hole, I walked into work on February 9 to see this. Hmm, obviously I didn’t put the starter hole in the right place and the birds had come up with their own location.

By February 16, though, the birds had come up with an even better spot!

By February 16, though, the birds had come up with an even better spot!

 A week later, the three holes look like a surprised cork ghost...

A week later, the three holes look like a surprised cork ghost…

 ...and by March 16, a scared cork ghost!

…and by March 16, a scared cork ghost!

It has been such a joy these past few weeks to see both of the woodpeckers engaging in their natural nesting behavior. At the time of this writing, the bottom hole is the most extensive cavity that reaches to the very bottom of the nest. The upper right hole is also large but does not extend or break through to the bottom hole. And the top center hole—the one I helpfully started for them—nothing. I think they just worked on it to be nice.

The video below is not the up-close-and-personal video I’ve tried to show in the past. But I think it is great in that it was taken from the guest walkway and is exactly what observant—and lucky—guests might be able to see for themselves! In the video, the woodpecker is “corkpecking” and chipping away at the material. Later in the day, I was delighted to see the female’s pointy beak emerge full of loose bits of cork. She spat the cork out, ducked back into the nest, and emerged seconds later with another mouthful of excavated cork. How cool!

Woodpecker Video

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, A Trick up Her “Sleeves.”


Condor Egg Fails to Hatch

This dummy egg looks just like a real California condor egg and serves as a placeholder.

This dummy egg looks just like a real California condor egg and serves as a placeholder.

As keepers, we often have the privilege to witness or even help usher in a new hatch or birth into the world. Of course, working alongside our excellent veterinary staff, we provide assistance and supportive care to maximize survivability, but sadly, sometimes it isn’t enough. We experienced this recently at our California condor breeding facility at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park when one of our condor eggs failed to hatch. This egg was expected to hatch under our experienced Condor Cam parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, who for the last two years have raised their chicks, Saticoy and Cuyamaca, under the watchful and adoring eyes of thousands of their fans. Saticoy is now flying free in Southern California, and Cuyamaca was recently sent to Arizona to be prepared for release there.

We usually remove the egg after it is laid so we can artificially incubate it and monitor its development without disturbing the very protective parents. While we are caring for the real egg, we give the parents a fake egg (called a dummy egg) to incubate. This dummy egg serves as a placeholder until the real egg is ready to hatch; without it, the parents would not accept the real egg when we would try to replace it in their nest.

While we were caring for Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg, we weighed it daily to track its weight loss, and we candled it periodically to monitor development inside the shell. During incubation, we noticed that the embryo was slightly in the wrong position to hatch—a malposition. Some malpositions are lethal or need our help to hatch successfully. This embryo’s malposition was not extreme and would not normally need our assistance. What was more concerning was the condition of the membranes surrounding the embryo: loose and saggy when they should have been taut. Concern grew that these membranes would cause difficulty in breathing for the embryo once it moved into the egg’s air cell to begin pulmonary respiration. The loose membranes could adhere to the embryo’s nostrils, suffocating it.

Despite 24-hour care from our keepers and a valiant effort from our veterinary staff, the embryo stopped breathing partway through the hatching process on Sunday, March 16, 2014. The egg was expected to hatch around March 20. The embryo and egg are now at our Pathology Lab; hopefully, we will have more information regarding the cause of death.

Egg mortality is highest at the beginning and at the end of the egg’s incubation period. Sometimes there can be a genetic issue causing the embryo to stop developing. Sometimes the egg can get too hot or too cold during incubation, the egg can get jostled, humidity can be too high or too low, etc. Despite setbacks such as this, our “hatchability” rate at the Safari Park is still very high at over 85% success, much higher than wild eggs that have to contend with nest predators, competitors, and a lack of veterinary support.

So, what’s next for Sisquoc and Shatash? They are still incubating their dummy egg perfectly and are being considered as potential foster parents if another condor egg needs to be parent-reared. They will still sit on the dummy egg, even after the due date of their original egg, but only for about a month or so. After that, they will start to tend to the egg less. We see this behavior in birds that are incubating an infertile egg or an egg that died during incubation. If another condor egg needs to be foster-reared, we can return that egg to their nest, and they will hatch it and raise it as their own. Their drive to care for an egg/chick is so strong that they don’t know or care if it’s not their egg. If another egg doesn’t need fostering, we will remove the dummy egg from their nest. They will then shift from nest-caring duties and spend more time in their flight pen. It may seem sad, but that is what happens to wild birds whose eggs do not hatch.

What’s next for Condor Cam? We have moved the camera to a different nest to show you another of our awesome condor pairs, Sulu and Towich, whose egg is due mid-April. Stay tuned for a blog introducing the new pair.

Thanks so much for all of the comments and condolences regarding the loss of Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg. There are still 30 other California condors at the Safari Park that need us to give them the best care we can. With hope, luck, and your support, we can continue to maximize success for these magnificent birds!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post,
Egg-citing News on Condor Cam


A Trick Up Her “Sleeves”

What tricks did this bird have up her "sleeves"?

A male blue-crowned hanging parrot has a red “bib” whereas the female does not.

I never stop learning at the San Diego Zoo. It is one of the best things about working here! I am constantly challenged to learn more about the birds I work with, the exhibits I work in, and how I can take better care of both. Sometimes I learn technical skills like how to install a mister system that can be utilized to give the birds a bath. Or I can read up on tips to successfully breed red-billed leiothrix Leiothrix lutea. Many times I learn from simply observing the birds go about their daily routines.

A few days ago, I was doing an end-of-the-day check on the blue-crowned hanging parrots Loriculus galgulus just up the hill from the tiger exhibit. As I was getting a head count, one of the birds caught my eye. It looked like one of the adorable little females had done something to her primary feathers. It seemed as if she had lost some of the barbules at the tips of her long, green feathers; it made her back look spiky. She was perched on a palm frond, chewing on a leaflet, and didn’t seem to be concerned with her odd feathers. After a few moments, she quickly flicked her head back to preen the spiky feathers and then returned to her chewing. A few more moments, another quick flick and preen, and back to the frond.

It's easy to see how the blue-crowned hanging parrot got its name!

It’s easy to see how the blue-crowned hanging parrot got its name!

It was after the third or fourth flick that I started to suspect what the tiny parrot was doing. My first reaction was that I must be imagining it—she surely wasn’t doing what I thought she was doing, was she? I had never heard of such a behavior, and I couldn’t believe she was being so smart…so efficient.

I crouched down in front of the exhibit to get the best vantage possible. I stopped watching her quick flicks, chewing, and preening, and instead focused on her spiky back. With a quick movement, the female turned her head, preened, and went back to her work. But there was a new spiky green “feather” in her back!

She wasn’t preening broken feathers after all! She was snipping little bits off the palm frond, sticking the cuttings onto her back, and using her feathers to hold them in place! I knew these little parrots lined their nests with strips of plant material, but I had never envisioned them using their back feathers as a type of backpack. With only one trip from her nest, this female was able to bring back over half a dozen strips to her nest instead of the paltry one strip she could’ve brought back if she had carried it in her beak.

This behavior has been documented before, but it is not something seen on a regular basis. Indeed, after eight years working with birds, I had never even heard of it. It makes me excited to find out what other tricks these birds have up their sleeves…er, feathers.

Mike Grue is a senior bird keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Sing, Song.


Sing, Song

Listen to the red-billed leiothrix's song!

Listen to the red-billed leiothrix’s song below!

Birds can make some of the most beautiful music in the world. The sweet call of the northern cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis tells us spring is coming. The majestic cry of the red-tailed hawk Buteo jamaicensis evokes a sense of being connected to nature—the sound most movies incorrectly play when they have a bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus on the screen. Loons sound so lonely and remorseful, it can make the heart ache. While those sounds evoke a variety of emotions in humans, birds sing and call for different reasons. Sometimes they may sing to announce their territory, to communicate with their mate, or to attract a mate in the first place.

The San Diego Zoo’s beautiful pair of red-billed leiothrix (pronounced LY oh THRIX) Leiothrix lutea in the enclosure just up the hill from the tigers take singing to the next level. The male has a wonderful repertoire of warbling whistles. He has so many notes, and it varies so much, it sounds like a new song every time he sings. To start the duet, the male spends about ten seconds delivering a gorgeous song before he takes a break. Then it’s the female’s turn. In the pause after the song, the female utters a low-pitched chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp. That’s it! Following the female’s contribution, the male picks right back up with another round of lovely notes. Once he finishes…chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp. Another song…chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp.

red-billed leiothrixAt first I couldn’t tell exactly what was going on, but after listening for awhile I noticed a few things:

1) The female never interrupts the male mid-song; she always waits until he is done to deliver her chirps.

2) The female chirps three to five times—with four being the most common.

3) The male starts his song again after her chirps, but waits for her chirps before he starts up again. This became obvious when I heard him finish his song, but the female didn’t call back right away. She was delayed because she was eating and had just swallowed a large piece of fruit! The minute she could, she chirped to complete her end of the duet.

Why does she chirp? Why does the male seem to find her call so important? I don’t know. I haven’t found any literature to suggest that they are actually “duetting” in the formal sense of the term. But when both of the birds seem to take their cue from each other, I think the term is appropriate. Either way, it is extremely interesting and quite cute!

Check out this vocal pair of birds uphill from the tiger exhibit (just next to the turtle exhibit on Tiger Trail).


On the audio, we first hear the male producing a short song followed by the female’s lower pitched, encouraging chirps. They continue back and forth for some time with the longest and most impressive song at the end of the recording. The female chirped anywhere from seven to ten times between the male’s song. This is a higher number of chirps than I had heard earlier in the month. I wonder if the female chirps more as the pair gets closer to the breeding season? Something to look forward to listening for as winter passes and spring starts to round the corner.

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Pick on Someone Your Own Size!


Egg-citing News on Condor Cam

A precious California condor egg is candled to check on fertility and condition.

A precious California condor egg is candled to check on fertility and condition.

We have good news to report: California condors Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg is FERTILE! Shatash laid the egg on January 22, 2014, and we are expecting it to begin the hatching process around March 18. So, it is approximately one-third of the way through its 56-day incubation period.

Condor Cam viewers have been watching Sisquoc and Shatash take turns caring for and incubating their egg. Well, actually, they’ve been caring for a wooden egg that we refer to as a dummy egg. We use a dummy egg as a placeholder until their real egg is ready to hatch. It’s not as if we don’t trust them with a real egg; on the contrary, they have proven to be very reliable parents! When we place the egg in an incubator, and let the parents sit on a dummy egg, we can more closely and conveniently monitor the egg’s progress and offer any necessary assistance without disturbing the doting parents.

We weigh the egg every day and candle it every few days. When we candle the egg, we hold it up to a bright light that illuminates the interior of the egg, allowing us to see inside. We can monitor blood vessels, membrane development, embryo growth, and movement. As of now, we can see the embryo, which is about 2 inches (5 centimeters) long, moving inside the shell; we can also see its eyes! By weighing and candling during the incubation period, we can make sure that the embryo is progressing normally, and if it isn’t, we can prepare to offer help if and when it is needed.

If all goes well during incubation, and the egg begins the hatching process, we carefully switch it with the dummy egg while the parents are out in the flight pen eating or sunning. They usually don’t even realize we switched eggs on them; they just return to their incubation duties.

As previously mentioned, both the male and female condor take turns sitting on the egg. An incubation bout may only last a few minutes before the parent gets off of the egg and leaves the nest box, or it may sit for the whole day. When the parents take turns on the egg, we call it a nest exchange. Sometimes a nest exchange is immediate: one parent enters the nest, and the other parent gets off of the egg and leaves. Other times, a nest exchange may be long, leaving the egg unattended for up to 30 minutes while the parents are outside eating, bathing, sunning, or socializing. During a long nest exchange, the egg cools down, but not usually enough to endanger the egg, especially with successful and experienced parents like Sisquoc and Shatash. Many times both parents are in the nest area—one may perch in the nearby roost while the other sits on the egg—seemingly keeping each other company.

During nesting season, California condors can be surprisingly territorial and defensive of their nest. Usually, they are very mild-mannered and calm, but when they have a precious egg or chick in the area, they defend it. One of the field biologists in California reported a pair of condors swooping and chasing a black bear away from their nest! Despite being very tough and strong birds, they can be very gentle when it comes to caring for their egg or their chick.

Keep checking in on Condor Cam to follow the progress of Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg and eventual chick!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, A New Egg on Condor Cam.


Pick on Someone Your Own Size!

A Reichenow's weaver gathers nest material.

A Reichenow’s weaver gathers nest material.

Valentine’s Day may be tomorrow, but the birds at the San Diego Zoo are already wooing their sweethearts, and I’d like to share a story about a brave male weaver sticking up for his shy girlfriend.

Reichenow’s weavers Ploceus baglafecht reichenowi aren’t known for being aggressive birds. They are small, black-and-yellow birds with great personalities and have a tendency to get along with all their roommates. That’s why I was surprised to see the San Diego Zoo’s male Reichenow’s weaver (in the African aviary between Scripps aviary and the gorilla exhibit) get into a disagreement with an oriole warbler Hypergerus atriceps. When I explain why he told off the larger female oriole warbler, you may think that he was only being fair….

At the time of the incident, the oriole warbler had only been in the exhibit for a few days. During her introduction into the exhibit, she had established a few favorite perches. One day the weaver female accidentally flew to one of the oriole warbler’s favorite perches right when the oriole warbler was trying to land there! They landed on the branch at about the same time, and the warbler scolded the weaver female. Sternly squabbled at, the weaver immediately flew to a neutral perch and seemed to be content to let the matter rest. Her mate was not!

An oriole warbler is the new bird on the block.

An oriole warbler is the new bird on the block.

The scolding oriole warbler must have attracted the male weaver’s attention, because he launched himself across the aviary, landed next to the startled warbler, and gave her the same scolding she had given his mate moments earlier. The warbler instantly backed down and flew off, leaving the male weaver to fly over to his mate to make sure she was okay. I kept an eye on this trio for the next few days and saw that everyone was getting along and had easily moved past the misunderstanding.

I think we could draw a number of funny, anthropomorphic tales from this interaction, but I do think that the weaver female hadn’t meant to anger the oriole warbler, which possibly overreacted due to being a little nervous in an unfamiliar aviary. And I do think that the weaver male was absolutely sticking up for his mate.

Interesting how much humans have in common with 1.5-ounce birds, isn’t it?

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post,


Cock-of-the-Rock Ruckus

A male cock-of-the-rock peers at Keeper Athena.

A male cock-of-the-rock peers at Keeper Athena.

If you’ve walked through Parker Aviary at the San Diego Zoo recently, you’ve probably wondered what all the commotion is about. There has been a lot of activity as well as a lot of noise coming out of the mouths of some extravagant and brightly colored birds. At first, most seem to think that the birds are showing some aggression toward each other or are being territorial. However, there’s a different explanation for this activity, and I’d like to shed some light on it for you.

The bright reddish-orange birds with black wings and tail feathers, pale gray wing coverts (feathers on their backs), and arcing crests that extend from the back of their head to their bill, almost concealing their bill, are male Andean cocks-of-the-rock Rupicola peruvianus. The females of the species look quite different, with dull plumage that is an orange-brown color and much smaller crests. They all have strong, hooked bills and powerful legs with very sharp claws. My hands can attest to these sharp claws as I learned quickly to be extra careful when handling them. Once they get their grips on something, they won’t easily let go!

A female cock-of-the-rock gathers nesting material.

A female cock-of-the-rock gathers nesting material.

There are two species of cocks-of-the-rock: Andean and Guianan. They belong to a family of birds known as the contingas, which is an amazingly diverse neotropical family of birds containing 34 genera and 97 species. The Andean cock-of-the-rock is sometimes referred to as the national bird of Peru. The genus name Rupicola means the dweller among the rocks and explains their preferred habitat. Andean cocks-of-the-rock are found in mountainous subtropical forests of the Andes in South America, which are often close to rocky outcrops next to streams. Their diet consists of fruit, insects, and occasionally small amphibians, reptiles, and mice, which make up a significant portion of the diet that is fed to chicks.

The San Diego Zoo is proud to be home to the second largest cock-of-the-rock group in the US after the Dallas World Aquarium, where most of our birds were hatched. You can view some of them in Jungle Trails next to the Children’s Zoo as well as in the Parker Aviary. In Parker, we have six birds: four males and two females. Two of these males are housed in the walk-through side of the aviary to help simulate what happens in the wild. They participate in the display but do not participate in breeding.

One of the unique characteristics of the cock-of-the-rock occurs during breeding season: males gather at communal courtship sites known as leks where they engage in elaborate vocalization, displays, or dances. These gatherings are a form of competition for breeding females and an opportunity for the males to show off their skills. Fifteen or more males may participate in a lek.

A female observes a male cautiously.

A female observes a male cautiously.

Breeding season varies depending on the area but is prompted by the rainy season and will likely continue through February as long as they are stimulated by rain. Therefore, this is the best time of year to watch them display. As you walk through Parker Aviary, you can hear peculiar loud, hoarse grunts, chuckles, squawks, and snapping of bills as males dramatically bow, jump and flap their wings. The displays usually take place on exposed branches and occur more often early in the morning and early in the evening when the light is less intense. This may be related to the bright coloration of the males and vulnerability to predators during the display periods.

At the lek, males may be observed breaking up into pairs and performing confrontation displays. This is when most of the bowing, jumping, and bill clapping occurs, which becomes even more intense when a female approaches to investigate. The advantage of housing four males in close proximity to each other in Parker Aviary is that it provides us with the opportunity to observe these confrontation displays up close.

The female defends her nest when the male gets too close.

The female defends her nest when the male gets too close.

Following mating, the female constructs a concave cup nest of mud and vegetation. Mixing saliva with the plant matter and mud, the nest is built under a rocky overhang, in a cave, or attached to a cliff face. Occasionally, females may nest closely together if the site is suitable; however, they may also be territorial of their nest sites, as our dominant female is of her cave in Parker. A typical clutch contains 2 eggs that are incubated for 25 to 28 days. Females are solely responsible for incubation as well as chick rearing. It takes 42 to 48 days before a chick fledges. Away from lek sites, females are usually alone. Males forage in pairs, but they roost alone at night.

For now, these birds are not globally threatened. Threats in the wild include birds of prey, snakes, and encroachment on the birds’ habitat. A few fortunate visitors to places like Machu Picchu may have had the incredible opportunity to enjoy these birds in their native home. This is on my personal “to do” list. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy working with them at the San Diego Zoo and be thankful for the privilege to experience such an incredible species. I hope you may also have this opportunity and find it equally rewarding and enlightening.

Athena Wilson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, First Flamingo Hatch of 2012.


Hands Up: You’re Surrounded!

Two members of the white-faced whistling duck gang

Two members of the white-faced whistling duck gang

The white-faced whistling ducks Dendrocygna viduata in Scripps Aviary at the San Diego Zoo are not known for being shy. They are not known for being subtle. They are not known for being quiet. What they ARE known for, by their keepers at least, are their ambushes and shakedowns!

The bird keeper working in Scripps Aviary has a morning filled with sights and sounds. The African grays Psittacus erithacus whirl, and caw. The green woodhoopoes Phoeniculus purpureus constantly cackle. The emerald starlings Coccycolius iris chirp, and the great blue turacos Corythaeola cristata make whatever crazy noise they make. Amid this beautiful symphony of sound, a keeper may forget to keep an ear out for the whistling duck gang.

The ambush starts off with an innocent high-pitched chirp. The chirp alerts those in hiding that their target is near. In moments, the whole flock of white-faced whistling ducks has the keeper surrounded! Whistling at the top of their small but mighty lungs, the ducks close in. The only way out of the jam? A quick-thinking keeper can distract them by tossing a couple of millet sprays into the water. Once the ducks take the bait, placing their food pan near their pool is another way to ensure that the keeper will be allowed out of the trap in one piece.

Okay, maybe I am being a little over-dramatic. The ducks are fairly friendly and never attack their keepers. I do think, however, that the message they are sending is clear: We want our food!

Check out the video to see what it looks—and sounds—like to be caught out in the open by the whistling duck gang!

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, A Peacock Named Shameless.