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Owens Aviary

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Favorite Bird Moments: We Want a Bath!

A dry Victoria crowned pigeon relaxes in the Zoo's Owens Aviary.

A dry Victoria crowned pigeon relaxes in the Zoo’s Owens Aviary.

Recently, I have written a number of stories about birds enjoying their baths (see my post Favorite Bird Moments: Splashing and Bug Collecting and an article in September’s ZOONOOZ titled “The Curious Habits of Bathing Birds). At the risk of having to rename this blog “Mike writes about bathing birds…again,” I have one more story (with video!) I just have to share about some water-loving birds.

As I was hosing the walkway in the Owens Aviary before the Zoo opened, the family of Victoria crowned pigeons Goura victoria walked into the path of the spray. I quickly pointed the hose away to avoid hitting them with the stream…but they kept following the water. After a couple of attempts to skirt around Mom, Dad, and youngster, I realized the only way I would be left alone would be to soften the stream and allow the pigeons to bathe. The result was three drenched birds, sprawled out on the walkway! Check out the video below to see just how much these pigeons enjoyed their bath!

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

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Metallic Starlings: Showstoppers

An adult metallic starling watches the action in the Owens Aviary.

At first glance, an adult metallic starling looks completely black with bright red eyes. Upon closer inspection, a visitor is rewarded with an iridescent collage of blues, purples, and greens. If one lone metallic starling is something to give you pause, the polychromatic flock of over 60 starlings in the Owens Aviary at the San Diego Zoo is always a complete showstopper!

A metallic starling puts the finishing touches on its nest.

The metallic starlings start their breeding season in early spring. For these months the starlings are only interested in nesting material (see October’s digital ZOONOOZ article on Owen’s Aviary for their nest-building shenanigans). Once the nests are fairly well built, we know we have only a few weeks—the incubation time for a metallic starling egg—before the flock switches from being crazy for nesting material to being batty for bugs! Adult metallic starlings are omnivores and eat everything from fruit and nectar to crickets, mealworms, ants, and wasps! Baby starlings, however, need a lot more protein than their parents, hence their dependence on bugs for the first few weeks.

After being fed a diet of mealworms and crickets to help feather and muscle development, a growing chick is eventually brought fruit and pellets to pack on the ounces. About three weeks after hatching, the chick is ready to make its first flight. The chick has to scoot to the small hole of its enclosed nest, jump out, spread its wings, and try to land on a nearby perch. With a healthy set of lungs and a loud chirp, the chick is able to advertise its new location to Mom and Dad. The parents are still responsible for feeding the chick for a few more weeks as it learns how to eat a bug without one being placed directly into its gaping mouth!

A juvenile metallic starling still sports its “baby” colors.

We start to see young starlings leaving their nests from the beginning of June through late August. When they first leave the nest, they have dark eyes, black-and-white streaked chests, and yellow markings on their bill. As they develop, they quickly lose their yellow markings and slowly get some red coloring in their eyes. It takes a full year before they trade in their streaked chests for smooth, glossy black ones and their dull, red eyes for brilliant ruby-colored ones.

In September and October we see the starling colony settle down into its new routines. The newest members of the flock stick closely together and explore their huge exhibit free from their parents’ watchful eyes. The chicks from the previous summer have just attained their adult plumage; since they will be old enough to breed next spring, they do a lot of “showing off” for possible future mates. The adults that have just survived yet another crazy breeding season are able to take a breather and relax before the madness of nest-building season starts once again.

No matter what time of year it is, be sure to check out the metallic starlings and their many avian neighbors in the Owen’s Aviary at the San Diego Zoo.

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, A Big Story for a Little Goose.

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A Big Story for a Little Goose!

A male cotton pygmy goose relaxes on a log.

In my previous post about white-faced whistling ducks (They Whistle, But Are They Ducks?), I mentioned that they were more closely related to a Canada goose than they were to a mallard. Well, cotton pygmy geese belong to the Anatinae subfamily, meaning they are more closely related to a duck than they are a goose! Why the misnomer? Take one look at this bird, and you will probably forgive anyone for thinking that they are a very small goose; their head shape and small pointy bill certainly looks very “gooselike.” While these shy birds are always fun to work with, something has happened recently that has thrust them into the spotlight: babies!

The Owens Aviary at the San Diego Zoo has been home to cotton pygmy geese for many years. While most visitors are awed by the colorful and loud birds swarming about their heads, these birds lead a peaceful and unassuming life in the lowest pool of the aviary. This past May, one of the regular aviary keepers noticed that the female goose wasn’t in the pool with her mate. After searching a number of her favorite hiding places, he started checking the nest boxes that surround the lowest pool. Cotton pygmy geese prefer to make their nest in a cavity like those found in dead trees…or in nest boxes strategically placed by keepers. After a quick search, the keeper found the missing hen in one of those boxes. She was on a clutch of eggs!

We were excited at the idea of having a gaggle of goslings running around the lower half of the aviary, but there was a question about what to do with the male. Remember that these birds behave more like a duck, and the cotton pygmy goose male doesn’t help to raise his young. After some debate, we decided to leave the male in the exhibit and keep a close eye on his behavior.

On June 14, 2012, the eggs hatched! My first view of them was from the top walkway of the aviary looking down at the lowest pool. Initially I saw…nothing! Not a sign of Mom, Dad, or their seven newest additions. Undaunted, I tossed a handful of crickets into the water some 50 feet below. Dad poked his head out, looked up at me, and then made a beeline to the mass of crickets. Taking their cue from Dad, seven tiny goslings came rushing out from the logs, grasses, and rocks to chow down. Even wary Mom slowly swam out to nibble at a few bugs. I was overjoyed to see the family of nine geese doing so well.

We watched with surprise at how confident the goslings had become in just a few days. In previous years, we were used to goslings that were experts at staying invisible. One year, a team of keepers had to be called in just to get a full count of four goslings! Not this group. These guys only need a few pieces of millet to encourage them to come a-paddling. Keepers think there are a few reasons this group of goslings is so visible and active:

1) There are more goslings in this group than there have been in past years (aren’t you more comfortable in new situations if you’re with a large group of friends?).

2) The male is such a calm and confident influence on his young. It seems that even though the male doesn’t take care of the goslings directly, the female and her young may draw confidence from his calm behavior. Pretty cool!

The young have grown up so fast that it can be hard to tell the babies from their mom—she is slightly bigger. But if you happen to visit Owens Aviary, be sure to take a moment to look down and say hi to the baby goslings!

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