Bird wars

A confession: When I pause by Gibbon Island on the Tropics Trail (and with yesterday’s skin-peeling Minnesota wind chills, the tropics was the place to be), I rarely spare a glance for the ducks and flamingos. Normally I just check out the white-cheeked gibbons, but this week the two small apes are off exhibit, the moat that contains them is temporarily drained, and the birds were walking around on the dry moat bed, picking quack-fights with each other. Two things I never noticed about flamingos until yesterday: They do quack, and they eat (or rather, drink) with their heads upside down. There’s no apparent slurping or gulping, though — they just stand there, motionless, their inverted beaks submerged. What’s in the bowl, you might ask? It may look like cream of tomato soup, but according to the zoo, it’s a mix of the following: “game bird mix, shrimp meal, rabbit chow, trout chow, oyster shell, grit, roxanthin and water.” Roxanthin is the chemical that makes flamingos pink; they’re born gray and fuzzy. In the wild, they absorb roxanthin through the blue-green algae they eat. At the zoo, the dozen or so flamingos on exhibit keep startingĀ little spats over the bowl, emitting low, melodious quacks and “fencing” artfully with their beaks. When the gibbons return and the moat is refilled, perhaps the birds will settle down a bit. Or maybe they’ve been this feisty all along.


Chobby and Company

It’s the first week of serious cold and lasting snow-dust around here, and yesterday the zoo was a sleepy place punctuated by bursts of activity: The occasional group of school kids went racing past, and on an otherwise deserted Grizzly Coast, a lively group of young adults was admiring the Amur leopards. When Grizzly Coast opened 18 months ago, Katya and Polina — spotted sisters from a New Orleans facility — were usually hiding in foliage at the back of their exhibit. Before long, they lost their shyness and started hanging out by the glass; once I saw and heard one hissing, housecat-style, at someone or something on the visitors’ walkway. And then, a few months ago, came a welcome infusion of testosterone: Chobby, the new guy from the Czech Republic. (Zoo volunteers love to say “Chobby,” which may mean something else in Czech but, according to, means “ultimate coolness.”) Chobby, the thick-necked fellow curled up by the glass here, is extra-important because Amur leopards are so critically endangered: 30 remain in the wild. The zoo’s talking point on this is to imagine a school bus half-filled with children: for each child, one leopard. The wild ones all are clustered at the intersection of Russia, Korea and China, the countries through which the Amur River runs. Amur leopards like to climb rocks or just lounge on them, as one of the girls is doing here, showing off the luxurious length of her beautiful tail. No official word on what she thinks of Chobby, but if she likes him enough, these cats will take one more tiny step back from the brink of extinction. (No pressure, Chobby.)