Behind the Scenes with Birds

Eurasian eagle owl Einstein poses with a trainer.

The Inside Look: Festival of Flight bird tours were a wild and wonderful way to see the San Diego Zoo in action last month. I am an educator who leads behind-the-scenes adventures at the Zoo. Our bird tour experiences were so unique this year that I was as excited as the guests to experience our special animal interactions! The Zoo’s bird collection is incredible and includes almost 400 species and subspecies, which comes to about 3,500 individual birds. During our special tours, we got to spend some time with our feathered friends and meet the keepers who keep them happy, healthy, and entertained.

These tours were spectacular for bird enthusiasts and general animal lovers alike. After catching the toucan presentation on the front plaza, we whizzed off in our VIP cart (a stretch golf cart) to the Wegeforth Bowl show area to meet Julia, an animal trainer with the Behavior Department. She brought out Einstein the Eurasian eagle owl (one of our animal ambassadors), an impressive bird with a nearly 5-foot wingspan. Once guests had a chance to get a photo with our superstar, we took a back road to our next stop. Along the way, guests got a peek at our horticulture backlot and the headquarters of our Bird Department.

We sped up Eagle Hill and checked out the polar bears swimming and splashing in the pool. Our tour made its way to the diving ducks Arctic bird exhibit in Polar Bear Plunge to meet with a bird keeper. For this special event, the keeper did a cricket and fish toss, which had never been done before with this particular group of birds. In fact, the keepers were not even sure the ducks would react to the fish or know what to do. To our delight, the birds dove deep into the water, chasing after the fish and showing off their amazing aquatic abilities.

A condor puppet grooms a California condor chick.

Next it was on to the California condor exhibit, where we met with bird keeper Amelia. We got a sneak peek at the condor back holding area as the condor boys curiously perched on top of the rocks above us. Amelia showed the guests condor flight feathers and the condor glove developed to feed chicks in captivity. She then placed a delicious condor breakfast of cow spleen and rat in the exhibit, and we watched the condors descend on the food, ripping it to shreds. We got a chance to see the social hierarchy of these amazing birds as they sparred for first dibs.

Our tour continued with a visit to the fabulous Matilda, a laughing kookaburra that lives next to the koala barn. Guests got to trill with her and watch her display her natural behaviors, including smashing a pinecone against a branch (this simulates breaking up the bones of a lizard or rodent, her natural prey).

A tour particpant feeds a flamingo.

Last but not least, we motored off to Urban Jungle, where animal trainers Kelly and Krista of the Zoo’s Backstage Pass program were there to meet us. Our finale included a trainer-led experience at the flamingo pond, where guests got to feed soggy wet dog food held in red cups to the pretty pink birds. Guests smiled and took photos as the flamingos mingled from red cup to red cup. Some guests who sat on the grass even ended up getting their hair restyled by the flamingos. Those glamour girls (and boys) love to groom!

Our Festival of Flight Bird Tours were a blast. We are gearing up for this month’s special Inside Look: Jungle Bells, Jungle Tour tours. These special experiences will feature jungle animals from sloth bears and jaguar to tigers and okapis. Guests will also have an up-close photo opportunity with an animal ambassador. As with all of our programs, participating in these tours helps support our Zoo-wide conservation efforts. We thank you for coming along!

Kimberly Carroll is an educator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, How to Handle a Hedgehog.

One Response to Behind the Scenes with Birds

  1. Congratulations to the San Diego Safari Park and to Michael Mace on the sucess of the Condor breeding program. The article on CNN this morning is a testament to the hard work of the entire staff. This gives proof that there is a glimmer of hope to reverse what we have almost destroyed. Hopefully we can be as sucessful with other species and save this planet. again Congratulations on all the hard work.

    Moderator’s note: Thank you for your kind words, barbara. They will be passed along to Michael!