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About Author: Michelle Penick

Posts by Michelle Penick

32

Pandas: Thinking of Love

Red panda Lily at home in Panda Trek.

Springtime is around the corner at the San Diego Zoo, but it’s not flowers or Valentine’s Day that makes me think of love here. It’s our pandas! Of course Bai Yun, our giant panda mother, breeds with Gao Gao in the spring, and she has had five cubs born at our zoo. They have been very successful as a pair, and Gao Gao has sired four cubs with Bai Yun (the first cub was born through artificial insemination before Gao Gao came to San Diego.) But what makes me chuckle recently is that there is a small patch of dirt usually just above Bai Yun’s tail where she sits on the ground of her enclosure. Looking at that patch of dirt can be intriguing. We have seen many shapes in that patch, and lately it seems to be taking on the shape of a heart. Will Gao Gao and Bai Yun mate this spring? Is it a sign? At this point, only the pandas know for sure, but the Panda Team will keep a close eye on our dynamic panda duo to see if Bai Yun goes into estrus this spring.

The “other” pandas are also making me think of love and have gained quite a following. Red panda Lily recently got introduced to her new mate, Flynn. You can now see them both on exhibit. Lily has a whiter face and Flynn has more reddish flecks on the side of his face. They are both a little over a year old. Red pandas become sexually mature at 18 months old and are fully mature at 2 to 3 years old. Let’s hope that the red pandas follow in Bai Yun and Gao Gao’s footsteps. While both pandas species share a name, giant pandas are bears and red pandas are in their own family group, Ailuridae. No matter which type of panda you are talking about, though, no one disputes that both species are adorable!

Michelle Penick is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Pandas: Like Son, Like Mother.

59

Pandas: Like Son, Like Mother

Who remembers Zhen Zhen's first snow day (Spring 2008)?

A few weeks ago, a very ambitious young panda named Yun Zi took the tree guard off of the little elm tree in his exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. He was having a great time running around that day! Thanks to the lightning-fast response of the keepers, they were able to call him into his bedroom, and the much more mellow Gao Gao was moved to the exhibit on the right-hand side of the main viewing area.

Then pandemonium happened on Monday, December 5. Bai Yun, our mother panda, got a wild hair and decided to play with the tree guard around the elm tree in HER exhibit that she had been ignoring for the past several months. She adeptly plucked off the zip ties that held the plastic barrier around the elm tree like a musician plucking a harp. Bai Yun had plenty of other panda-approved things to play with, like a Boomer ball in her exhibit, but I guess the plastic around the tree looked too fun to pass up! Again, with the lightning-fast reflexes of the keepers, Bai Yun was called into her bedroom and went immediately inside. All one keeper could do was exclaim, “Like son, like mother!” I’ll have to admit that it did make me chuckle a bit.

What else is going on? There is a new visitor to the main exhibit. A beautiful bird of prey has been perching in the tree above our visitors and sometimes flies to the elm tree in Bai Yun’s exhibit. So far, Bai Yun takes little notice of the bird, but Zoo visitors are getting some nice photos. It appears to be perhaps a Cooper’s hawk or sharp-shinned hawk. It usually flies off toward the Zoo’s Treetops Café, so you might spot this beautiful bird there as well.

Yun Zi is scheduled to get snow on Thursday morning at 9 a.m. This will be his first time experiencing snow, so if you can’t make it in person, be sure to watch all the action on our new HD Panda Cam. With so much going on at the Zoo, it seems like the pandas will be as busy as some of us this time of year.

I hope you all have a great time with your family this holiday, and remember that the Zoo will be open until 8 p.m. starting on December 10 for our Jungle Bells Celebration. See you soon!

Michelle Penick is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, From Tiny to Teenager.

30

Panda: From Tiny to Teenager

Yun Zi

“Where is the baby panda?” is a question I often get asked by San Diego Zoo visitors. They can hardly believe that the youngest giant panda in our Zoo, Yun Zi, is the 145-pound (66 kilograms) animal that is in the exhibit in front of them!

When pandas first start out life, they are just a few ounces in weight and about the size of a stick of butter. They are fairly helpless and can’t see or hear at that age, but they are quite noisy. This is pretty genius of the cubs to make that much noise so that the 200-plus-pound mother bear knows exactly where the tiny infant is at. Young pandas grow at a very rapid rate and gain independence from their mother at around 18 months of age. Yun Zi has been on his own for quite some time now. He celebrated his second birthday on August 5, and he is now considered a sub-adult by panda research standards or a teenager by our human family standards. Pandas generally live to be 16 to 20 years old in the wild, and in a managed-care environment they can live sometimes into their 30s.

The keepers say that Yun Zi is not only looking more grown up, but he is acting more like a teenager, too. These days, they wonder if the name “Little Dragon,” which also translates as “little monster,” should have been his true name. If you remember, “Little Dragon” was one of the five name choices people could vote for during the final phases of online voting for Yun Zi’s name. But with over 17,500 votes, the people spoke loud and clear, choosing “Yun Zi” or “Son of Cloud.” The name is a great tribute to our mother bear, Bai Yun, or “White Cloud.”

So what has the whirlwind we call Yun Zi been up to? What hasn’t he been up to? He has been running all over his exhibit, turning somersaults, playing in the mud, attacking burlap sacks that the keepers put in the exhibit for him to play with, balancing on his float toys, and all of his other usual hobbies that young Zoo pandas enjoy. Like many teenagers, though, there were a few times in these past few months where his listening skills had room for improvement.

The keepers work with Yun Zi using positive reinforcement training. When Yun Zi does what is asked of him, he is rewarded with a treat. When Yun Zi doesn’t do what is asked of him, he gets ignored for a brief period and then the keepers offer another opportunity to earn treats again later. This is how we get the pandas to go inside their bedrooms so that the keepers can clean. There were a few days this last month where the keepers had to “ask” Yun Zi several times to go in his bedroom. Once I saw them try four times. I asked the keepers about the change in behavior. They said that when Yun Zi is acting more difficult, it is often at a time when they see him going through a growth spurt, just like what seems to happen with human teenagers. If Yun Zi keeps up with all this growing, he will be outweighing his father, Gao Gao, soon.

Michelle Penick is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Bai Yun Returns.

36

Bai Yun Returns

Here comes that gorgeous panda, Bai Yun!

If you have visited the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek lately, you’ve noticed that we have shifted our pandas around. Gao Gao is now behind the scenes enjoying the sweet taste of his bamboo bread during his recovery from his medical procedure, and Bai Yun is back in the main exhibit. I am really happy to be watching Bai Yun again. She is so majestic looking, and guests say that she is one of our most photogenic pandas because you can usually see the whites of her eyes against her black eye spots.

The beautiful Bai Yun has not taken much notice of Yun Zi, her two-year-old son who is in the adjacent exhibit, since she moved back to the main exhibit. Bai Yun goes about her day searching for treats hidden around her exhibit, eating her bamboo, and resting her head on her favorite rock “pillow.” Giant panda females only raise their young until they are about 18 months old, and then the cub gains independence. In the wild, if the cub tries to stay with the mother bear too long, he might get chased away. Since Bai Yun would not have the option of chasing her cub away at the Zoo, the juvenile panda goes through a more gradual weaning process. The mother bear and youngster spend less and less time with each other until they gain full independence from one another.

Yun Zi has been an independent young panda so far and spends his days playing, turning somersaults, eating his bamboo, and napping after a meal, just like his mom. After the initial weaning, it was important that the pandas didn’t see or smell one another for quite some time, but currently they don’t seem to be taking notice of each other. I would have to say that Yun Zi took more notice of the takins moving near the pandas than of his mom.

Michelle Penick is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Pandas and Trees.

47

Pandas and Trees

Yun Zi, still at home in the trees, on the trees, around the trees, tearing up the trees...

Whenever I think of fall, trees come to mind. Changing leaves start falling from their lofty branches down to earth as Mother Nature prepares the world for winter. Pandas are arboreal as youngsters, but as adults they are primarily ground dwelling. Still, each member of our panda family uses trees in different ways.

Gao Gao, our daddy panda, does not climb high trees very often, but he does like to use a tree as a backrest as he tears through his bamboo with Zen-like concentration. He also is famous for his handstands. Gao Gao does a handstand to put his scent mark as high as he can on a tree to let everyone know he’s been there.

Our mother bear, Bai Yun, has been climbing especially high in her tree lately. She uses it as a perfect lookout to see what the keepers are up to. You see, it is very important to know where the bringers-of-all-things-good are at all times! Bai Yun also loves to use her climbing structure in the middle of her exhibit as the perfect spot for a post-bamboo nap.

Yun Zi has many uses for his trees. He does love to sleep up high most of the time since he is still fairly young, but that’s the mellowest activity you will observe from him. Yun Zi has been romping around in typical teenager fashion, to the delight of our Zoo guests as of late, and this includes hanging upside down from his climbing structure, scent marking branches, and flopping his whole body atop the small elm tree in his exhibit, which has barely been able to withstand his destruction. Yun Zi also takes delight in ripping branches from this same elm and transporting them to various other parts of this exhibit. He reminds us of his older sister, Su Lin, whom we affectionately called “the redecorating diva.”

And then there is the artificial tree. The Zoo is very close to having enough funds to construct a new cement climbing tree in Yun Zi’s enclosure. We are just a few thousand dollars away from reaching our goal. If you enjoy watching our pandas in the trees, just image watching Yun Zi romp in a new, Yun-proof tree. Now that is something I am really looking forward to!

Michelle Penick is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, So Long, Summer.

If you’d like to contribute $10 (or more) toward that new tree for Yun Zi, please visit our Animal Care Wish List.

73

So Long, Summer

Yun Zi is an independent two year old!

What a summer it has been at the San Diego Zoo! For those of you who like your news condensed, I will give you a recap of some of our memorable events this season in Panda Canyon.

Late spring, we saw Charlotte the hummingbird raise two babies in Gao Gao’s exhibit. Both young birds seemed healthy, and every time I see a hummingbird at pandas now, I can’t help but wonder if it is a part of Charlotte’s family.

After gradually weaning from his mom, Yun Zi became a very independent young panda. His keepers have been training him to take part in a hearing study to test the range of a panda’s hearing, and from the look of it, it seems like the training is going very well. Keeper Juli Borowski even presented a paper about training for research at the American Association of Zoo Keepers conference, which was held in San Diego this year. I have seen Yun Zi lie down, roll over, put his paws up on the gate, and, most important for the study, touch his nose to the red dot on the mesh door when asked. Good panda!

I just loved seeing all the panda fans at the Black & White Overnight this year. Many had panda-ear hats or T-shirts and bags featuring their favorite pandas, and the campers made enrichment “animals” out of cardboard boxes for the pandas to play with. Yun Zi really loved these and was running around his exhibit like a wild child tearing them up, climbing on his structures, and splashing in his pool. You campers really made his day lots of fun, and I hope the “Panda-Vaganza” was fun for those of you who attended this year.

The Panda Trek habitat opened on Yun Zi’s birthday, August 5, and the pandas soon got a red panda and takins as neighbors. I will tell you that Yun Zi seemed not so thrilled with the takins at first. Even though he can’t see them, he was lifting his nose in the air and vocalizing at first (maybe he was wondering what the unusual new smell was?), but he quickly got used to their scent, and it is life as usual now for our busy boy.

So what is on the horizon for Panda Canyon this fall? The pandas should be getting some new enrichment items after the sale of the baby panda plush animals that went toward that cause. Thanks so much if you purchased one of those cute souvenirs. Money is still being raised for Yun Zi’s new climbing structure (see our Wish List if you would like to contribute). It would provide the pandas with a new 12-foot-tall artificial tree guaranteed to be Yun Zi-proof! It sounds really amazing, and I can’t wait to see this put into the exhibit in the future.

Thanks for reading through the summer happenings, and until next time, keep tuning in to Panda Cam.

Michelle Penick is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Thinking of Spring.

39

Pandaland

Bai Yun

All is currently well with the pandas here at the San Diego Zoo. Our not-so-little Yun Zi (who is now considered a subadult) continues to channel his older siblings. Lately, he has been reminding me of Zhen Zhen and her silly antics. I always said that Zhen was our little acrobat. Yun Zi is channeling Zhen Zhen’s gymnastic abilities by turning somersaults, hanging upside down from great heights in his climbing structure, and wowing the crowds by sitting in his hammock and hamming it up while he eats his bamboo.

Bai Yun has been splashing around in her pool in the north exhibit; it is still too soon to confirm whether or not she is pregnant. Perhaps we will have some news later in July. Since the babies are only about the size of a stick of butter at birth, they can be challenging to find on an ultrasound until the cub is more developed.

Gao Gao is always seemingly content as long as he has bamboo and a nice sleeping spot. Keepers say he is an easy-going panda to work with. He has been enjoying all of the enrichment items the keepers have been providing him, like puzzle feeders, Boomer balls, and sawdust.

And how about our hummingbird in the elm tree where Gao Gao is housed? I am happy to report that Charlotte the hummingbird is doing just fine. It seems her first baby grew up and left the nest; she laid another egg, because we saw that the nest was not being used for a brief period of time. And then our mother hummingbird looked like she was turning an egg and sitting for a few weeks. Now we have been observing her feeding again. Go, Charlotte!

As you can see, all things are good in “Pandaland,” and we are looking forward to a summer of exciting changes! We have an Asian-themed Nighttime Zoo, which starts on June 25, and all of our fingers (and toes) are crossed, hoping for another panda cub.

Michelle Penick is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Hummingbird Chicks at Pandas.

24

Hummingbird Chick(s) at Pandas

An Anna's hummingbird sits on her nest.

The little Anna’s hummingbird, Charlotte, who moved into the elm tree in the panda exhibit last month, is doing great! (See post Bai Yun’s New Neighbor.)  Visitors are asking to see her, and she is becoming quite popular. Charlotte hatched her eggs two weeks ago and can now be seen flying around to collect food and returning to the nest to feed her young.

Nobody knows how many chicks are in her nest, though, because the nest is high up, and the walls of the nest are pretty high. I will tell you, however, that from time to time we see a little beak reaching up to Mommy Charlotte’s beak for a little nourishment. Typically, this hummingbird species lays up to two eggs, and the babies remain in the nest for three weeks. I really can’t wait to see those babies flying around in a few weeks.

Bai Yun never took notice of Charlotte and her family, and now she and Gao Gao have switched enclosures to smell each other’s scent marks.  Like the giant panda, the female hummingbird only stays with the male long enough to mate, and the female is responsible for building the nest and rearing her young.

Michelle Penick is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.

Hummingbird Eggs Hatch in Panda Exhibit

The little Anna’s hummingbird, Charlotte, who moved into the elm tree in Bai Yun’s exhibit last month, is doing great! (See post Bai Yun’s New Neighbor.) http://blogs.sandiegozoo.org/2011/03/08/bai-yuns-new-neighbor/ Visitors are asking to see her, and she is becoming quite popular. Charlotte hatched her eggs two weeks ago and can now be seen flying around to collect food and returning to the nest to feed her young.

Nobody knows how many chicks are in her nest, though, because the nest is high up, and the walls of the nest are pretty high. I will tell you, however, that from time to time we see a little beak reaching up to Mommy Charlotte’s beak for a little nourishment. Typically, this hummingbird species lays up to two eggs, and the babies remain in the nest for three weeks. I really can’t wait to see those babies flying around in a few weeks.

Bai Yun never took notice of Charlotte and her family, and now she and Gao Gao have switched enclosures to smell each other’s scent marks. Like the giant panda, the female hummingbird only stays with the male long enough to mate, and the female is responsible for building the nest and rearing her young.

Michelle Penick is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.

22

Bai Yun’s New Neighbor

A hummingbird neighbor.

Bai Yun has a new neighbor in her enclosure, and it’s not a Sichuan takin. A little hummingbird has taken up residence in the elm tree in the left-hand enclosure of the main exhibit. I first noticed the small bird, called an Anna’s hummingbird, yesterday as she was collecting some spider webs to make her nest above where I was narrating at the Giant Panda Research Station. A guest told me that he watched the bird fly over to the elm tree and pointed out her nest site to me.

For collecting webs, I have named the hummingbird Charlotte. Bai Yun doesn’t seem to be taking any notice of her new neighbor. Charlotte is a vigilant guard over her nest, though, and has been chasing away birds that are more than twice her size that come near her branch. To find Charlotte’s nest, look at the branch of the elm tree in front of Bai Yun’s cave. On top of the branch that is hanging lowest (and is cut on the end) you will find the tiny nest.

I hope Bai Yun doesn’t mind a little company during breeding season. For now, she is sharing the spotlight as photographers are also snapping photos of her small green-and-gray avian companion sitting on a nest.

Michelle Penick is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Thinking of Spring.

64

Thinking of Spring

While his parents prepare for spring, Yun Zi enjoys his new hammock in the garden room.

It’s almost springtime in San Diego, and spring is the time of year when we see many changes here at the San Diego Zoo. Our pandas are no exception to these changes. We are all very excited about the projects going on in Panda Canyon, as the pandas will have some new neighbors (see Panda Canyon Changes), new climbing structures, and something else new to focus on—breeding season. Until the construction projects are completed, our pandas will be rotating on exhibit, so you never know who you will see. On Sunday it was a very relaxed adult female, Bai Yun, on the left-hand side, and in the right-hand enclosure was our adult male, Gao Gao. It was great to see them enjoying the sun and, as usual, kicking back and eating their bamboo.

Many Zoo guests have been asking us if Gao Gao and Bai Yun will have another cub. Only the pandas know for sure. If our black-and-white duo were wild pandas, they would be nearing the end of their lifespan; since they live in a beautiful managed-care situation, however, they could live into their 30s. So how old can a giant panda be and still conceive a cub? This seems to be a popular question. One panda that we know of gave birth at the age of 20, so it is not unreasonable to think that Bai Yun and Gao Gao may produce one more cub. Bai Yun is currently 19 years old (her birthday is September 7), and she seems very active. Watching her play last month with youngster Yun Zi, it seemed that she had absolutely no trouble keeping up. She would wrestle with him in play sessions, and sometimes, when Yun Zi thought he was done, Bai Yun would drag him back toward her for more.

So we are all very optimistic for our panda couple to mate this spring and for Bai Yun to have another baby. The female giant panda is in estrus for only one to three days during the entire year, and she skips a year of breeding if she is caring for her young. This is Bai Yun and Gao Gao’s year—we are hoping for some “romance” in late March or early April.

Michelle Penick is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Big Steps Toward Independence.