bird keeper


Bird Keeper: A Busy Calendar

Blue-winged pittas love their megaworms.

Blue-winged pittas love their megaworms.

The Tiger River “string” is composed of six bird exhibits that line the Tiger Trail above and below the Malayan tiger exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. In these 6 exhibits there are around 120 birds. Normally, the birds are fairly predictable and easy to keep track of. The blue-winged pittas Pitta moluccensis come out of hiding for their tossed megaworms. The Malay great argus male Argusianus argus greets me at the door but expects his peanuts to be tossed deeper into the exhibit. His friendlier mate comes directly up to my shoe for the same thing.

Our nice-and-quiet routine is dramatically altered once their hormones kick into high gear. Starting around March and typically lasting through August or September, the breeding birds behave differently. They find new hiding places to make nests, they need more fruit or bugs added to their daily diet, and they become more territorial. The easy-to-predict birds suddenly become much more unpredictable!

I have my own calendar at my workstation that helps me visualize what is going on in these six exhibits. When I find eggs that I expect to hatch (fertile eggs that are being incubated), I look up the incubation duration for that species and figure out when those eggs should hatch. The earliest date when an egg should hatch is labeled and highlighted in pink. Any approaching pink-highlighted date lets me know I have to get ready for a potential new chick! The actual hatch is highlighted in yellow. Having hatches easily visible and clearly marked comes in handy many times. Expected fledges are noted in blue. These dates are important, because keepers need to know when a chick is expected to leave the nest, as we frequently add low perching or empty a deep pool for the young and inexperienced fliers.

A black-throated laughingthrush parent is kept busy feeding its chicks.

A black-throated laughingthrush parent is kept busy feeding its chicks.

For example, I noticed a pair of black-throated laughingthrushes Garrulax chinensis sitting on a nest earlier in the month and had figured out that April 12 was the earliest hatch date for the egg. Just before expected hatch, I ordered more bugs to go into their exhibit, as laughingthrush chicks eat a lot of insects. But there was a gap of two days before the chick did hatch. I did not go up to the nest and disturb the parents but knew there was a hatch based on the parents’ behavior—they were stacking bugs in their beaks and bringing a mouthful of mealworms, crickets, and waxworms up to their nest!

Usually 12 days after a black-throated laughingthrush hatches, the chick leaves the nest or fledges. A few days before the chick fledged, I put out some shallow water pans and emptied the pool in their exhibit. If the chick left the nest early, I wanted to make sure that it didn’t get trapped in the cold water. But that is not all! In May, I wrote down the date when the chick would be big enough to have an ID band put on its leg.

One last thought. As crowded and as colorful as this calendar can get, the six exhibits on the Tiger River string are not even the busiest breeding exhibits in the Bird Department. There are eleven other strings in the department, and many of them have more going on during this dynamic time of the year! I am humbled by the amount of knowledge my coworkers have and the amount of work they and our supervisors—who have to organize and manage all 12 strings!—put into their jobs. My hat’s off to all of them!

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Food Time!


A Trick Up Her “Sleeves”

What tricks did this bird have up her "sleeves"?

A male blue-crowned hanging parrot has a red “bib” whereas the female does not.

I never stop learning at the San Diego Zoo. It is one of the best things about working here! I am constantly challenged to learn more about the birds I work with, the exhibits I work in, and how I can take better care of both. Sometimes I learn technical skills like how to install a mister system that can be utilized to give the birds a bath. Or I can read up on tips to successfully breed red-billed leiothrix Leiothrix lutea. Many times I learn from simply observing the birds go about their daily routines.

A few days ago, I was doing an end-of-the-day check on the blue-crowned hanging parrots Loriculus galgulus just up the hill from the tiger exhibit. As I was getting a head count, one of the birds caught my eye. It looked like one of the adorable little females had done something to her primary feathers. It seemed as if she had lost some of the barbules at the tips of her long, green feathers; it made her back look spiky. She was perched on a palm frond, chewing on a leaflet, and didn’t seem to be concerned with her odd feathers. After a few moments, she quickly flicked her head back to preen the spiky feathers and then returned to her chewing. A few more moments, another quick flick and preen, and back to the frond.

It's easy to see how the blue-crowned hanging parrot got its name!

It’s easy to see how the blue-crowned hanging parrot got its name!

It was after the third or fourth flick that I started to suspect what the tiny parrot was doing. My first reaction was that I must be imagining it—she surely wasn’t doing what I thought she was doing, was she? I had never heard of such a behavior, and I couldn’t believe she was being so smart…so efficient.

I crouched down in front of the exhibit to get the best vantage possible. I stopped watching her quick flicks, chewing, and preening, and instead focused on her spiky back. With a quick movement, the female turned her head, preened, and went back to her work. But there was a new spiky green “feather” in her back!

She wasn’t preening broken feathers after all! She was snipping little bits off the palm frond, sticking the cuttings onto her back, and using her feathers to hold them in place! I knew these little parrots lined their nests with strips of plant material, but I had never envisioned them using their back feathers as a type of backpack. With only one trip from her nest, this female was able to bring back over half a dozen strips to her nest instead of the paltry one strip she could’ve brought back if she had carried it in her beak.

This behavior has been documented before, but it is not something seen on a regular basis. Indeed, after eight years working with birds, I had never even heard of it. It makes me excited to find out what other tricks these birds have up their sleeves…er, feathers.

Mike Grue is a senior bird keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Sing, Song.


Favorite Moments: Partridge Family Snackers

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.

This story focuses on a video I captured while going about a normal work day as a bird keeper at the San Diego Zoo. It has to do with parents teaching their young how to eat. I think it would be best to watch the video below first and then read the blog. But it is, of course, entirely up to you.

If you have already watched the video of the crested wood partridges Rollulus rouloul eating, you are still probably “cooing” over just how adorable their chick is as it tries to eat anything Mom and Dad pick up. If we look closer, though, we see a number of amazing things that are happening.

The first thing that I just love is that the male is helping to feed the chick. Sometimes it is normal for a male bird to help feed his young, but when it comes to many ground birds like chickens, grouse, pheasants, monals, etc., the males usually never even meet their offspring. Crested wood partridges are quite different: Dad may not help to incubate the eggs at all, but he is a stellar dad when it comes to taking care of his chicks.

At the video’s start, Dad (with the red mohawk and red around his eyes) and Mom are passing a waxworm back and forth while quietly making a vocalization that says something close to “here is food.” We then see the chick suddenly run up to join his parents on the wooden bridge (temporarily set up to span the waterway while the chick is learning how to navigate the exhibit).

A young ground bird doesn’t know what is good to eat, but it is born with an instinct to try to eat anything its parent picks up and makes a fuss over. The bigger the fuss, the more the bird will want to eat the item. What almost looks like teasing from the parents as they pass the waxworm back and forth is really intended to give the chick practice hunting bugs that may not be as easy to catch once the bird has to fend for itself. What a great little family!

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Favorite Bird Moments: We Want a Bath.


A Bird Keeper’s Favorite Moments

Will the black-billed wood dove be on the move during your next Zoo visit?

Will the black-billed wood dove be on the move during your next Zoo visit?

As a bird keeper at the San Diego Zoo, there are many times throughout the month when I get to see something funny, interesting, or even amazing. Though individually these events may not be substantial enough to fill up a whole blog, I can keep adding other must-share stories until…voila. A full blog! For the first blog in this series, I have a story about a dove that doesn’t realize why she is so interesting. Then we find out what the Zoo’s barbets have been hiding. Lastly, we see that our Bird Department doesn’t just take care of the Zoo’s birds; want to see what else we’re up to?

I'm sure the bonobo was just a puzzled as I was!

I’m sure the bonobo was just a puzzled as I was!

Who “wood” have guessed?
There is a little bird exhibit between the bonobos and the African crowned eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus exhibit in the Zoo’s Lost Forest. In this exhibit lives a black-billed wood dove Turtur abyssinicus who does a perfect imitation of a statue. I have rarely seen this bird move while feeding and cleaning the enclosure. I may see her plain as day and even greet her with a “good morning,” but she refuses to break character and remains still as stone. One day, to my shock, she was walking along the ground pecking at bits of food!

I wasn’t the only one who noticed this rare event, though. A bonobo who shares a glass windowpane with the dove’s exhibit also saw the mobile bird and came over for a look. The normally shy dove looked up at me, looked over at her next-door neighbor, and went back to eating as if it were no big deal. Seemingly unable to contain his shock, the bonobo lightly tapped on the glass. The dove again looked up, turned her back to both onlookers, and continued with her meal. I wonder if the bonobo had the same thought going through his mind as I did as I walked away: “Well, you don’t see THAT every day.”

Chicks at last for our bearded barbets!

Chicks at last for our bearded barbets!

Barbets prefer to decorate their own nest
The bearded barbets Lybius dubius in the enclosure between the Scripps Aviary and the gorilla exhibit have chicks! The male and female have been mates for awhile, but they haven’t had much success when it comes to reproducing. This spring, keepers took their old nest away and gave them a palm log with only a small starter hole toward the top. The barbets were immediately curious. Letting them have free reign to burrow their way into the log, the barbets created a safe little nest for their eggs.

Maybe the bonding experience of making their own nest triggered their parenting instincts, because as of press time there are two new fledgling barbets, courtesy of the hard work put in by Mom and Dad (and maybe a few of their keepers, too!). Come check them out!

A red-shoulder hawk is saved by the Bird Team!

A red-shoulder hawk is saved by the Bird Team!

The Bird Department: Jacks of all trades
On a regular basis, the Zoo’s Bird Department is called in to save the day, or at least to save the duckling…or the hummingbird…or the sparrow. During the breeding season we usually get a couple of calls a day to help a lost mallard duckling find its mom, or to relocate a baby bird that may have left its nest a little early. In June, we got to help out a much larger feathered friend, a red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus! The wild hawk needed help, as it had managed to fly into an exhibit that was under construction. Though there weren’t any animals on exhibit, the netting prevented the bird from finding her way back out!

After amassing a number of bird keepers with nets of various sizes, we quietly entered the exhibit. With tall nets that can be lengthened by adding segments, we tried to net her at the top of the tall enclosure. After less than a minute, the hawk flew very low and almost into a keeper’s net! The surprised bird made a quick course correction, but she lost all her speed, stalled, and landed in the grass a few feet away.

One of our very experienced raptor handlers, Paul, acted immediately by grabbing her—with gloves on—before she could again take to the sky. We could tell that the bird was one of the young red-shouldered hawks that lived around the Zoo with her siblings and parents. Paul walked his young ward to a safe release area where, upon opening his hands, she took flight, perched high in a tree, and started to preen. I think the whole department went back to our “jobs” with smiles on our faces!

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Metallic Starlings: Showstoppers.


Welcome to the World, Screamers!

On Monday, February 7, we welcomed three crested Screamer chicks to our San Diego Zoo family (see post, Something to Scream About). I had been eagerly checking the nest every day to see if the eggs had pipped yet. When I checked at 9 a.m., the eggs were still completely intact, but less than two hours later, they decided it was time to come out. The female screamer assisted with the hatching process, turning the eggs so that the chicks could come out more easily. By 4 p.m., all three had hatched! This was quite a surprise to us all, as it was a very quick pip-to-hatch time period. Some bird species take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to hatch; I guess these kids were ready to see their new world. They remained on the nest with Mom and Dad taking turns brooding them for the first couple of days. On Thursday, February 10, the chicks came off the nest for the first time.

Screamer chicks are precocial, which means that upon hatching their eyes are open, they are covered with down, and they are mobile. They are able to pick up food on their own, although they may need some assistance from their parents in finding food. A precocial chick is developmentally more mature than an altricial chick, which usually hatches with eyes closed, are relatively immobile, and are also completely dependent on the adults.

So far, so good. All three chicks have been observed eating and drinking. We provide them with a mixture of nutritionally balanced waterfowl pellets that are ground up to allow for easier consumption, finely chopped romaine lettuce and fruit, as well as mealworms and young crickets. Adult screamers are herbivores, but chicks require a diet higher in protein during development, which is why we provide them with insects. Mom and Dad will care for the chicks, keeping them close by and brooding them when they are cold for 8 to 10 weeks. They will be fully independent between 12 and 14 weeks of age, although it is not unlikely that the chicks will stay close to the parents as long as their presence is tolerated.

The first several days and even weeks of a chick’s life are nerve-racking for a bird keeper. We must keep a very close eye on them and watch for any behavioral, developmental, or health abnormalities. I am thrilled that all three chicks hatched and am feeling optimistic, as this is the second parental opportunity for the female, and our male is a seasoned pro.

Stop by our Caribbean flamingo lagoon at the front plaza to see our beautiful crested screamer family. The chicks will be right next to Mom and Dad or under foot. You may even be lucky enough to see them taking a swim, which is always entertaining. Even though they’re precocial, they can still be a bit clumsy at times.

Athena Wilson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Update: February 21, 2011
Unfortunately, we lost all three screamer chicks. We lost one of them of unknown causes, the second one due to predation by a wild great egret. The third one went to the veterinary hospital; despite the efforts of the veterinary staff, this chick passed away a day later of unknown causes. A necropsy will be done on each one of them to determine the cause of death. I hope we will learn from them to see if there is something we can do in the future.

The good news is that we will be allowing them to breed again this year (it’s not too late). If we get chicks again, we will most likely move them to a safe place off exhibit and bring them back as a family when the chicks are big enough to not be at risk for predation. I apologize for the sad news. It was a rough few days for me as their keeper 🙁


Rhinoceros Hornbills: Romance Blooms

A male, left, feeds his mate.

This is Chapter 2. Be sure to read Chapter 1, Rhinoceros Hornbills: A Fairy Tale.

January 6, 2010, the male and female rhinoceros hornbills moved into their new home. Once again, keepers were ready to break up any fighting. Once again, the birds showed us just how much they liked being with each other. With hardly a squabble, the male picked up a piece of food, hopped over to his new enclosure mate, and offered it to her. She daintily took the food and swallowed it. Over the next few weeks, the male solidified his bond with the female by bringing her the best food items in their pan. He may not have been just trying to be “nice,” though: food sharing is an extremely important part of the courting process.

In many bird species, the male may offer food to the female to show what a good provider he would be for any young that they may have together. With rhino hornbills, this is especially true because of their unique way of protecting their nest. As with many hornbills, the female rhino hornbill finds a cavity in a large tree that serves as her nest. By using food, saliva, and feces, the female makes a “wall” that seals her in the nest. This wall helps to keep her safe during the long egg laying, incubating, and chick-rearing process. She does leave a small hole by which the male can pass food to her, but she is then completely dependent on the male for both her and their chick’s survival.

March 10 was the day the female finally stopped exploring her enclosure and instead sat in her nest all day long. The keepers were both ecstatic and guarded. The female might have been too old to reproduce (she had not successfully reared a chick since 2001). What were the chances that this new pair would get it right only months after first being introduced? The female went into the nest box, and over the course of a few days she sealed herself into the nest. With the male diligently bringing the majority of the food to the nest box, keepers were confident that the female was getting all the grub she could have asked for. It got quiet for a while in that aviary: the morning honking had stopped. There was just the quiet, predictable routine the male had established to keep his mate well fed.

For a few months the male was mostly aloof toward his keepers and stayed out of our way during servicing. That all changed in early May. It was almost like a light switch had been flipped. The aloof male became something of a food monster! He couldn’t get to his food pan quickly enough, he couldn’t eat fast enough, he couldn’t get to the nest speedily enough! We couldn’t be sure, but it looked like our new male hornbill was a new daddy!

Check back soon for the next chapter of this tale!

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Rhinoceros Hornbills: A Fairy Tale

A male rhinoceros hornbill

The rhinoceros hornbill Buceros rhinocerosfamily located in the large aviary across from Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo has a story fit for a fairy tale. Over the past year, the relationship “status” for both male and female went from “single” to “in a relationship.” Not only that, but they have become the proud parents of a sweet, healthy, and demanding baby hornbill! There are many amazing bird stories here at the Zoo, but almost none of them compare to the bonding, mating, nesting behavior, incubation, and chick rearing that these two rhinoceros hornbills have experienced in the last year.

I should start at the beginning of their story: In July 2009, the Zoo acquired a male rhino hornbill with the hopes that our lone resident female would bond with him. This is not necessarily as easy as it sounds—hornbills are known to be very picky about choosing their partners.

Just because their keepers think that a pairing looks good on paper doesn’t mean that they agree with our choices! Needless to say, it was important to take the introductions slowly.
At first we didn’t even allow them to see each other. Our female had been single for a while, and we wanted to see what she thought of another hornbill being in her zoo. Our female must have been quite surprised the first day she started her usual morning honks and was actually answered! She called out, and the male rhino hornbill answered her from his enclosure across the canyon! They kept their long distance relationship alive by “talking” every day. Sometimes he started the loud chat sessions while other times it was she who initiated them.

The next step was to decrease the distance between the two. Late November 2009, the female was moved into a holding pen next to the male. Though they were in separate enclosures, and there was wire in between the birds, keepers were on guard to break up any aggression. Our concerns were never put to the test, as the two hornbills seemed to like each other at first sight. They would bring food from their individual food pans to the two perches nearest each other and would display their food before swallowing it. It was almost as if they decided to make the most of being next to one another and were determined to enjoy eating their meals together.

Check back soon for the second chapter of this tale!

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Secretary Bird: Not Your Average Raptor.


Secretary Bird: Not Your Average Raptor

The Zoo's secretary bird struts his stuff.

The Zoo's secretary bird struts his stuff.

The opening of the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey in May of last year brought many interesting animals into the spotlight. The elephants got a large exhibit to explore, while three California condors moved into their new digs, and that doesn’t include the myriad of other mammals, insects, and reptiles that found themselves transported into the various Pleistocene-themed exhibits. One of my favorite animals to work with moved into Elephant Odyssey because he resembles a long-legged eagle known as the Dagget’s eagle that used to live in Southern California thousands of years ago: the secretary bird.

If seen lying down, the secretary bird looks like a medium-sized eagle. The forward-looking eyes and large hooked bill lends the bird an impressive face that yells “hunter!” But once the bird stands up, his face is probably the last thing you would look at. Standing at full height, secretary birds can be four feet tall (1.2 meters).

secretary_bird_hopThe secretary bird probably developed such long legs because they help him hunt in the grasslands of Africa. In the bird’s range, there are not a lot of good perching trees where many eagles sit and wait for their food. The tall grass also hides their natural prey (small mammals, snakes, and even large insects), so the best way to find some grub is to get down and dirty in the grass itself. Now think how hard it would be for a bald eagle to “run” through 3-foot-tall grass! But take a look at a secretary bird’s legs, and I’ll bet you can imagine how quickly that bird could run through a field. Then, a good kick or two from their powerful legs either kills or stuns its prey.

The secretary bird that is on exhibit at Elephant Odyssey has been in our collection since before he hatched, but he certainly hasn’t stayed in one place for very long. He was laid in the summer of ‘08 at the Wild Animal Park, hatched and cared for at the Zoo until he fledged, then lived the rest of his first year back at the Park. He came to live at the Zoo when he was about one year old.

If you have not yet seen our terrestrial raptor, he is in the exhibit behind you when you are looking into the Elephant Care Center. He may be lying down in the warm sun, hunting insects that fly into his aviary, or sleeping in his nest at the top of the tree. You may also notice that he has a couple of friends in there with him, too. These black-billed magpies are common in the western U.S. and are quite the busy, intelligent little Corvids (crow family) worthy of their own blog!

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Hornbills Share a Meal.


A Round of Applause for Clapper Rails!

A light-footed clapper rail is banded before its release.

A light-footed clapper rail is banded before its release.

As a bird keeper at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, I get to see and do a lot of amazing things. On June 16, 2009, I got to participate in something I’ve always wanted to do: help save an endangered species by releasing captive-bred birds into the wild! Released were 16 juvenile light-footed clapper rails, 5 of which I had seen grow up from one-day-old hatchlings! Saying goodbye to these birds was not difficult, though, because I knew that they would assist in the recovery of their species here in San Diego County.

Light-footed clapper rails live in coastal wetlands from central California down to Baja California, Mexico. Due to the overdevelopment of their natural habitat, their numbers have dramatically decreased over the past century. Many organizations have been trying very hard to help save this species in many different ways. Besides habitat restoration, predatory control, population surveys, protecting nest sites, and creating artificial nests, there is also a managed-care breeding program.

Habitat loss has cut off the rail’s normal migration routes, thus creating a fragmented population. The breeding program helps prevent genetic bottlenecking within the population by taking individuals from one subpopulation, breeding them in managed care facilities, and releasing their offspring into new subpopulations. The Wild Animal Park, the Chula Vista Nature Center, and SeaWorld San Diego have been involved with this translocation and breeding program for many years now and have helped release over 200 juvenile clapper rails.

The San Elijo Lagoon near Encinitas, California, is home to one of the light-footed clapper rail subpopulations, and it was also where the release I participated in took place. Before we did the release, however, we had to get all of the birds ready. To do this, Michael Mace, the curator of birds at the Wild Animal Park, and I headed to the Chula Vista Nature Center. Even though our five release candidates were bred at the Wild Animal Park, they were moved to the Center when they were about six weeks old so that they could get more acclimated to what life in the wild would be like.

At the Center, we also met up with representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and SeaWorld San Diego. I was unsure of what my role would be in the whole process, so I was very surprised when I was asked to help catch up the juveniles from their large outdoor holding pens. Catching the birds proved to be quite difficult because they were very fast and were able to hide amazingly well in even the smallest amount of vegetation! Once all of the birds were caught up, they were weighed and then banded on their right leg with a numbered aluminum band so that each individual could be identified in the future. They also received a gold band on their left leg, which represents that they were released in 2009.

Kim and others release clapper rails.

Kim and others release clapper rails.

Now that the young rails were ready for release, we put them into transport boxes and drove to the San Elijo Lagoon. Once all members of the Clapper Rail Recovery Team had arrived, we walked down a short trail to the lagoon. At the edge of the water, we lined up half of the carriers so that eight of the clapper rails could be released at the same time. At the count of three, we tilted our transport boxes forward and opened the tabs, thereby freeing the birds that we had spent so much time raising and protecting.

This was my first time ever seeing a clapper rail fly and only my third time seeing them in the wild, so I was absolutely in awe of them. Each one flew out in different directions until they found a spot that looked safe enough to land in. Once they made it to the ground, they disappeared into the vegetation and were not seen again while we were there. After the last eight juveniles were released and had vanished into the marsh, we couldn’t help but applaud, for we knew all of our efforts could possibly prevent another species from disappearing from our planet.

Kim Roth is a keeper at the Wild Animal Park.

Watch video of the release
Read a post about a previous clapper rail release

Update July 14, 2009: Clapper rails hatched at the Wild Animal Park in 2007 and released the same year have been sighted with three chicks this past week in the wild!


Duck Pond: A Feeding Frenzy

Cattle egret

Cattle egret

Have you ever walked past the open aviary across from the Birds of Prey catwalk and wondered what it took to feed so many different types of birds? I think that most of the keepers who have had the pleasure of working with this collection will tell you that feeding the residents of the Duck Pond exhibit at the San Diego Zoo can be the highlight of their day–or one of the most difficult things they will do all week!

For starters, the sheer number of species makes a feeding challenge. A Duck Pond feeding consists of flamingo pellets, duck pellets, lettuce for the geese, insects for the egrets, ground-up meat, pinky mice, and two different types of fish! But we keepers are not able to simply broadcast all this food into the water with the hopes that everyone will be able to get their fair share of food.



There are as many ways to feed the birds in the Duck Pond as there are keepers, but the general feeding schedule is as follows:

First of all: The keeper tries to get as much duck pellet to the Zoo’s ducks as possible! This is easier said than done, as the wild mallards are numerous and can eat a seemingly endless supply of duck pellets. If a keeper pours the pellets into the water next to where they are standing, the more wary mallards will usually stay back far enough for our collection birds to satisfy their hunger.

Next, we keepers focus on the meat-eaters! The shy little cattle egrets can be challenging, as they are usually competing for their pinky mice with the intimidating (and wild) great blue herons. The cattle egrets have learned that we can usually toss their food into a clump of grass they can forage in but the larger herons cannot.

After tossing food to the egrets, the cormorants and darters are usually feeling a little neglected. Some of them will actually stand next to us and patiently wait for their breakfast, while others will noisily berate us for ignoring them! As you can probably guess, these guys also have to compete for their food with the herons. Luckily for us, the cormorants don’t back down from a challenge the way the egrets do! A tossed trout or capelin anywhere near a hungry cormorant is almost always caught in midair by their sharp, hooked bill and swallowed before the heron even realizes a fish was tossed.



[The spoonbills are my favorite to feed, though, as they have learned to take their ground-up meat by hand. The herons used to pose a problem in feeding these guys, too. But with a little training and a lot of trust between keeper and spoonbill, the “spoonies” are now able to take their food directly from our hands instead of competing for it with the herons!

Visitors are sometimes lucky enough to see a Duck Pond feeding first thing in the morning or sometime in the afternoon (usually between 3 and 5). Check it out on your next visit!

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.