Favorite Bird Moments: Grooving and Begging

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A male crested wood partridge has dark plumage while the female is mostly green.

A male crested wood partridge has dark plumage while the female is mostly green.

It’s been tough selecting just a few bird stories to share! There are two tales that do especially stand out, though. I have a story about a bird that gets exactly what she deserves, followed by an encounter with one of the most impressive begging displays I’ve ever seen!

How a partridge got her groove back.
If you’ve ever visited the Zoo’s Hummingbird Aviary, you have probably seen the resident crested wood partridge Rollulus rouloul. The adorable and friendly female partridge got along well with the smaller and more arboreal birds in the aviary. She even had a friend in the pink-eared duck Malacorhynchus membranaceus that lived there. What this little green gem of a bird was missing, though, was a mate. She kept herself busy these last few months by foraging for food, preening her feathers, and welcoming the day’s first visitors before retiring for her morning nap.

Early this summer though, the little partridge was in for quite a surprise when she was moved into a newly renovated Australasia exhibit in Lost Forest. Upon move-in day, she found there was another crested wood partridge in the exhibit with her—a male! She played coy at first, but the male knew exactly how to win her over: food! He diligently scoured the ground for any bug or tidbit that might tickle the female’s fancy. When he found a morsel he thought might do the trick, he started chirping, as if to say, “Honey, come quick and look at what I’ve found!” She quickly learned to hone in on the male’s chirping. Last week, I saw the sleeping female jerk awake and sprint over to her mate when he called out to let her know that he had found a bit of food to share. You can check out the new pair of crested wood partridges at the enclosure just to the left of the Mount Goliath lorikeets Charmosyna papou in Australasia between the Parker Aviary and Treehouse Cafe.

It's hard to miss the brightly hued Gouldian finch!

It’s hard to miss the brightly hued Gouldian finch!

Be careful not to slam the door!
The most dynamic bird exhibit of 2013 is definitely the finch aviary at the Zoo’s new Australian Outback. It has breeding double-barred finches Taeniopygia bichenovii, star finches Neochmia ruficauda, plum-headed finches Neochmia modesta, and Gouldian finches Erythrura gouldiae! There are days when it seems that closing the exhibit door too loudly can bring about a tsunami of newly fledged finches!

The past few days I have worked with Jackie, a coworker in charge of caring for the aviary, and we have banded seven new finches in the last three days! Yesterday, I was giving the birds some extra food, and the first bird I saw upon walking into the exhibit was…a new Gouldian fledgling!

The youngster was on the ground and had its eyes closed. I wanted to make sure he was just relaxing and not sick, so I lightly touched his chest. The young bird opened his eyes, looked at my finger, and hopped onto it! No sooner had the bird gotten comfortable than the protective parents came swooping down from the trees. Professing to the parents that I had no ill intentions, I placed the bird on a low log. The docile chick sprang into action the moment he saw his parents.

He did the standard begging chirp that most young birds do to their parents. He also fluttered his wings a bit—all standard stuff, really. It was the inside of his mouth that just floored me, though. It was something like a mini fireworks display! The tongue and mouth were all white and covered with a number of contrasting black dots. The yellow corners of the mouth were also quite striking. But the four phosphorescent blue dots along the side of the bird’s mouth kicked the display up another level. Yes, the chick’s mouth appears to glow! As if that weren’t already enough, the chick then rotated his head back and forth to provide a glowing outline of the “target.”

There is a good reason Gouldian finch chicks put on such an impressive show. Gouldians make their nest in tree cavities where it is always dark, and therefore it may be hard for a parent to find the mouths of all its hungry chicks. I saw this display in broad daylight and was impressed. I can only imagine what it must look like with four hungry chicks in a dark nest!

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, A Bird Keeper’s Favorite Moments.