Favorite Bird Moments: Splashing and Bug Collecting

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A Raggiana bird-of-paradise spreads its wings to catch some mist.

A Raggiana bird-of-paradise spreads its wings to catch some mist.

I have started to keep a list of “my favorite bird moments” so at the end of the month I can go through the list and write about the best ones. Sometimes, an even more interesting story bumps a story that I think will make the cut. I knew the first story this month was going to make it without question. It was just too much fun not to share!

Splish, splash, I was taking a bath.

Anyone who has gone to the San Diego Zoo has probably taken the guided bus tour at least once (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?!). Do you remember an aviary on your left just after getting your picture taken? If so, you remember the bird exhibit at the bus loading area. The exhibit is large, well planted, and quite tall. This makes it an enriching environment, but it can sometimes make it hard for a keeper to spot the birds.

One day, I couldn’t find all of the Raggiana birds-of-paradise Paradisaea raggiana. I looked all over for them, but I just couldn’t find all five. Then it came to me: if I couldn’t find them all, I’d make them all find me. I grabbed a hose and started to lightly mist one of the trees. The Raggiana’s started showing up immediately! Twisting upside down, fluffing their feathers, and flapping their wings, the Raggi’s noisily took their shower. The louder the racket, the more the other Raggi’s in the aviary wanted their turn in the cooling spray. It didn’t take more than a few minutes before I had every Raggi clean and accounted for. You may be able to catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, but to attract a flock of Raggi’s, all you need is a little water!

White-breasted buffalo weaver.

White-headed buffalo weavers can be seen in the Zoo’s Kopje.

Action is the real measure of intelligence.—Napoleon Hill
How do you measure intelligence? It is difficult to measure in humans and even more difficult in birds. The breeding pair of white-headed buffalo weavers Dinemellia dinemelli in the Zoo’s Kopje aviary in Africa Rocks appear to be quite the dullards. Though we can’t see a chick in their nest, we strongly suspect that they do have one because of a fairly odd—some may say foolish—change in their behavior.

What silly behavior gives their secret away? Earlier this month, they started to stack bugs in their bill. Stacking is common among birds feeding chicks, but I don’t mean that they are picking up a few mealworms here and there—I mean that they are picking up as many bugs as their considerable bill will allow. It looks like an insect grenade has gone off in their mouth! Cricket legs and wings poke out, mealworms are half ingested, and waxworms seep out of any gap. It is quite the sight!

A couple of weeks ago, I hung around to see them lug their protein rich chick-chow to their nest. A few seconds turned into minutes, and in the end, I never saw them bring the bugs to their nest. Why did they delay feeding their chick? As it turns out, though they may look goofy with all those bugs crammed into their mouth, the weavers have a clever reluctance to go to their nest when there is potential danger in the vicinity. Though I don’t mean their chick any harm, in the wild, a bird with a beak full of food may attract attention from a predator that could then follow the parents to the defenseless nestling. The parents help ensure their chicks’ survival by waiting until the coast is clear before returning with a mouth full of food. Now, isn’t that smart?

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Favorite Bird Moments: Grooving and Begging.