Have you ever walked past the open aviary across from the Birds of Prey catwalk and wondered what it took to feed so many different types of birds? I think that most of the keepers who have had the pleasure of working with this collection will tell you that feeding the residents of the Duck Pond exhibit at the San Diego Zoo can be the highlight of their day–or one of the most difficult things they will do all week!
For starters, the sheer number of species makes a feeding challenge. A Duck Pond feeding consists of flamingo pellets, duck pellets, lettuce for the geese, insects for the egrets, ground-up meat, pinky mice, and two different types of fish! But we keepers are not able to simply broadcast all this food into the water with the hopes that everyone will be able to get their fair share of food.
First of all: The keeper tries to get as much duck pellet to the Zoo’s ducks as possible! This is easier said than done, as the wild mallards are numerous and can eat a seemingly endless supply of duck pellets. If a keeper pours the pellets into the water next to where they are standing, the more wary mallards will usually stay back far enough for our collection birds to satisfy their hunger.
Next, we keepers focus on the meat-eaters! The shy little cattle egrets can be challenging, as they are usually competing for their pinky mice with the intimidating (and wild) great blue herons. The cattle egrets have learned that we can usually toss their food into a clump of grass they can forage in but the larger herons cannot.
After tossing food to the egrets, the cormorants and darters are usually feeling a little neglected. Some of them will actually stand next to us and patiently wait for their breakfast, while others will noisily berate us for ignoring them! As you can probably guess, these guys also have to compete for their food with the herons. Luckily for us, the cormorants don’t back down from a challenge the way the egrets do! A tossed trout or capelin anywhere near a hungry cormorant is almost always caught in midair by their sharp, hooked bill and swallowed before the heron even realizes a fish was tossed.
[The spoonbills are my favorite to feed, though, as they have learned to take their ground-up meat by hand. The herons used to pose a problem in feeding these guys, too. But with a little training and a lot of trust between keeper and spoonbill, the “spoonies” are now able to take their food directly from our hands instead of competing for it with the herons!
Visitors are sometimes lucky enough to see a Duck Pond feeding first thing in the morning or sometime in the afternoon (usually between 3 and 5). Check it out on your next visit!
Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.