Food Time!

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The great argus pheasants share their aviary with a variety of birds, each with its own dietary needs.

The great argus pheasants share their aviary with a variety of birds, each with its own dietary needs.

It should come as no surprise to hear that the most interesting, and dynamic, part of the day in any bird exhibit is usually feeding time. Even though our birds have constant access to a nutritious and balanced diet, a keeper entering the exhibit with new food pans means there are usually some choice goodies that any fish-eating stork, mealworm-devouring woodpecker, or grape-gnawing fruit-dove can’t wait to get a hold of. While the scope of a keeper’s entire morning feeding routine may be too overwhelming to cover in one short blog, we can take a look at how exciting feeding time is in one particular bird exhibit at the San Diego Zoo.

The Malay great argus exhibit (just next to the lower tiger viewing glass) is home to a number of colorful characters. At any given moment you may witness the stunning fairy bluebird Irena puella singing his tune while making fast, powerful darts from perch to perch, the mischievous blue-winged sivas Minla cyanouroptera flitting from leaf to leaf, the hooded pittas Pitta sordida hopping in and out of the ground cover on spring-loaded legs. And in the background you may hear the black-throated laughingthrushes Garrulax chinensis and Chinese hwameis Leucodioptron canorum calling back and forth to their mates.

As vibrant and lively as this exhibit is throughout most of the day, things really start to get exciting when the birds hear a keeper approach. Their first clue that it is feeding time is probably when they hear the lock being unlatched. By the time I enter the exhibit, the birds have taken their stations and are ready for their breakfast.

Blue-winged sivas are the smallest birds in the aviary and get fed first.

Blue-winged sivas are the smallest birds in the aviary and get fed first.

When I first enter the exhibit, I am frequently surrounded on three sides with expectant birds. The first to get fed are usually the smallest birds in the exhibit: the blue-winged sivas. These little guys are usually embedded in the nearest foliage, chirping away. They can be hard to find, but when they see me looking for them, they pop their heads out of the foliage and fly out to catch their tossed mealworm. When they both have their breakfast treat, they retire to an upper corner of the exhibit to enjoy their grubs together. Two down, fourteen to go!

The Malay great argus Argusianus argus are usually next. I toss a few peanuts deep into the exhibit. As the male sprints away to hunt down his peanuts, I drop a couple at my feet for the female and her chick to enjoy.

By this time, the male white-rumped shama Copsychus malabaricus is growing impatient, and he is perched about 3 feet in front of my chest, staring straight at me. I toss a few waxworms (moth larvae that look like large maggots—not as gross as it sounds!) into the crook of the tree behind him. The voracious male usually inhales all the insects within reach. Though if he has chicks he is feeding, the male stacks as many bugs into his tweezer-like bill as he can before flying off to care for his chicks.

If I have timed the feeding right, the argus mom and baby have just finished their peanuts and are moseying over to their morning sun bath when the pittas hop over to my feet and declare they want their food—now! A reclusive species notorious for their solitary habits, pittas can fight over their food if they think their mate unfairly stole their worm. By tossing one redworm to my left and one to my right, the pittas about-face and hop to opposite ends of the exhibit, where they can enjoy their treat all by themselves.

After the fairy bluebird catches his third bug in mid-air, and the female shama has darted out from her ground cover to snag a forgotten cricket, the excited mob of birds thins to a mere congenial gathering. This is when the patient laughingthrushes and humble hwameis emerge to land on nearby perches. I toss a few bugs into the leaf litter and let them hop down to kick up their own food. As I finish setting out the morning food pans, I usually leave the exhibit to the pleasant, rhythmic sound of the laughingthrushes and hwameis kicking leaves, tossing twigs, and digging in the dirt in their search for that last, elusive grub.

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, His and Her Massages: Collared Lories.