The Other Side of the Moat - Part 2

By Scott Johnston, Keeper-Aide Volunteer

August 21, 2009

8 a.m.
Staggering out of bed at sunrise and driving for a half an hour across town to clean bird droppings and sort frozen mice probably would not be most people’s idea of a great start to a birthday celebration. I, on the other hand, can’t think of a better way to kick off my 38th year on earth.

My second day in the Keeper Aide program at the Sacramento Zoo got off to a raucous start when I was assigned to assist with the feeding and cleaning of the many birds on exhibit at the zoo.

Now it’s well documented that I’ve always been an animal buff. However, birds have never been high on my personal favorite list. It’s nothing personal; I’ve just always been more interested in other types of creatures.

After hooking up with keepers Amanda and Scott, it didn’t take long for me to realize our beak-baring, feathered friends have a lot to offer in the personality department too.

First up was cleaning and feeding the zoo’s male and female Abyssinian Ground Hornbills.

In the wild these large, black birds can be found in the Sub-Saharan Africa, north of the equator including southern Sudan, Ethiopia, northern Kenya and northern Uganda. They prefer open-country, sparse woodlands; savannas and forest edges and can grow up to 39 inches tall, weigh nearly nine pounds and live 35 to 40 years.

The mischievous male hornbill, greets us at the gate to get first dibs on his meal of mice, vegetables and mealworms. Yum!

A trusting sort, he quickly attempts to employ me as his personal safe deposit box, repeatedly trying to guide his black seven-inch long dagger-like beak into the top of my boot. His mission being, I’m told, to stow his mouse meal in a safe spot.

Thankfully, the keeper proves to be quite skilled at deflecting Mark’s friendly advances, cleverly thwarting Mr. Persistent with a rake and a smile. I exit my new BFF’s house mouse-free Next we moved on to the Buton and Great Hornbill.

A hard plastic construction helmet and protective eye ware hanging outside the Great Hornbill enclosure catches my eye.

Not wanting to seem overly anxious I casually inquire about the items. Amanda points out that the gear is merely a safety precaution that keepers must wear when inside the Great hornbill exhibits due to the fact that the birds powerful beak (they’re called Hornbills for a reason) could easily cause damage.

Next I’m told that this is one enclosure I will enjoy from the outside due to large male’s rambunctious, rough and tumble nature.

The Buton Hornbills are a happy couple and prove too be more my speed, quietly watching from above as I move about cleaning their comfortable home.

The male of the house indulges me with his super cool beak-to-eye coordination, deftly snatching grapes I toss up to him and then carefully passing every other one off to his mate, a wonderful display of pair harmony.

Burrowing Owls and Yellow-billed Magpies are our next stop. Yellow-billed Magpies may seem like an odd choice to keep in a zoo, but they in fact can only be found in California’s central valley.
A slightly morbid scavenger hunt is next on the list as I move about the Burrowing Owl aviary. Searching high and low, I must find, remove and replace tattered mice carcasses. I swear I could hear the four tiny owls hooting with laughter as I wrinkled my nose and gingerly swapped out their meal.

After returning to the kitchen Scott asked if I had any interest in helping him sort dead mice. Would I?! “Gloves or no gloves?” he asked with a wry smile. “Even though they’re dead, they can still scratch you.”

Seeing he was going bare handed, I opted to go commando-style as well. Not knowing what to expect next, I watched as Scott produced a large trash bag chock-full of frozen mice in a plethora of colors, shapes and sizes.

The task was simple; break them apart and sort them into small, medium and large piles. Hey, birds have to eat too!

While this proved to be an “interesting” task, I nearly dislocated my right shoulder raising my hand when Amanda asked for assistances with the Thick-billed Parrot enclosure.

Hanging with this entertaining bunch proved to be a great way to finish out day two. Green with splash of red on their heads, this endangered Mexico native is curious and fun loving. They wasted no time introducing themselves, buzzing me with flybys and even taking a special interest in trying to untie my bootlaces.

Overall my day with the birds turned out to be equal parts enjoyable and educational.

I can’t wait to see what happens next week on The Other Side of the Moat.

Stay tuned…

Find out more about the birds at the Zoo with fact sheets, pictures and videos on our birds of the Zoo webpage.
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