Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!
Adjacent to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park there is a hidden gem called the Beckman Center, also known as headquarters of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Ms. Colleen Wisinski, Senior Research Technician for the Applied Animal Ecology Division, is just one of many scientists and researchers hard at work here every day. Although Ms.Wisinski’s title may appear daunting, her job is actually very interesting.
One of Ms.Wisinski’s projects is studying the costal cactus wren, the largest wren in all of North America. These birds live in football shaped nests that they build in stands of prickly pear cactus. Sadly, these cacti have become increasingly scarce near the Safari Park since the 2007 Witch Creek fire. Ms.Wisinski is part of an effort to restore these cacti so that the cactus wrens have somewhere to nest. Besides losing their nesting area, these wrens also face threats such as urbanization, wildfires, and non-native plant species. Cactus wrens can tolerate some human disturbance but things such as off-roading in their costal sage scrub habitat can be detrimental to a family of birds. Costal sage scrub, or CSS, is a highly endangered habitat with only ten percent remaining from its historical range. Wildfires such as the Witch Creek fire are also a huge threat to these birds and their habitat, and although cactus regenerates quickly it cannot recover after it is melted. Non-native species also pose a threat to the environment by taking over native habitats. Even though these threats are a huge problem for the cactus wren and their habitat they can easily be avoided by being more aware of how your actions impact the environment.
Ms. Wisinski took us to the outskirts of the Safari Park to show us the cacti that have been planted, and to observe the birds that now inhabit them. The Safari Park that you experience when you come for the day is actually matched in size by 800 wild acres of land that surround it. While we were out in the field, Ms. Wisinski talked to us about how she and other researchers often do something called point counts; this is when you stand in a predetermined place and see how many birds you can hear or see. They also use GPS (Global Positioning System) to mark nests for the springtime. These methods of counting help the scientists determine roughly how many birds are in the area and whether or not their efforts are working.
Although many other scientists like Ms. Wisinski are working to restore cactus wren habitat, they still need your help. There are small ways that you can contribute to their cause. Keep your cats indoors, since the cactus wren is an isolated species, and if your cat gets a hold of them, they can easily wipe out a small population of these birds. Also by planting native species for landscaping, not only are you helping to preserve the natural habitat but you’re also cutting down on your water usage. Even something as simple as spending a day at the Zoo or Safari Park supports the work done at the Institute. Keeping a watchful eye over these animals is keeping them alive and prosperous, and with your help the cactus wren will continue to thrive.
Robin, Real World Team
Fall 2012, week 3