Avian April

April is Farm Babies month at the zoo, but for those who don’t want to hike all the way out to the Family Farm on a weekday (trams run part of the way Friday through Sunday), we’ve got bunnies and chicks in the main building.

Besides a group of six-week-old New Zealand white rabbits (their inner ears rosily aglow), there’s this nice little mob of Rhode Island Red and Americauna chicks, which were mostly about two weeks old as of Thursday. (Zoo staff keep swapping out the big chicks and introducing younger ones, so that age range shouldn’t change much.) Kids were fascinated and the chicks reciprocated, rushing en masse to one side of their enclosure to inspect a little girl’s floppy pink hat, then to the other to check out a little boy’s green-frog finger ring. A couple of guests were concerned that one of the smaller chicks was getting picked on by the others (pecking order, anyone?), but by the time a staffer stopped by to assess the situation, all the fuzzy orbs were milling around randomly again.

Meanwhile out on the Central Plaza, the morning was rain-washed and smelled of worms, and two trumpeter swans were hanging out on the pond. Thanks in part to the zoo’s captive-breeding program, these guys are off the Minnesota endangered-species list, and my fellow volunteer Wally theorized that the one resting on land just flew in from the wild to take shelter here, given its lack of a visible zoo tag. Sneaking back outside after lunch, after the sky cleared and the worm-smell dissipated, I became obsessed with following the swan pictured at right (zoo tag not quite visible here) as it glided around the pond’s edges, dunking its head to eat aquatic plants with tail feathers pointed skyward and, for one spectacular moment, stretching upward to show off its 7-foot wingspan. Both swans were shy about showing me their faces, but I was just happy to see them gracefully situated in a shallow, sheltered body of water so nicely tailored to their needs.

Bear feet in the pool

Nearly six months into this blog, I’m finally featuring the rock-star bears of Russia’s Grizzly Coast! Kenai, Haines and Sadie spent much of the winter curled up in a big furry pile behind a frost-inscribed viewing window — still cute to look at, but resistant to anecdotes and photos. Yesterday began gray and forbidding, but by the time I was scheduled outside around 2 p.m., the sun had emerged, a knife-sharp wind had eased into a refreshing breeze, and Haines was playing in the trout pool.

I mistook him for Kenai at first, but when he lumbered out of the water, the patches of black in his season-transitioning fur suggested otherwise. That’s Kenai on the right, playing a similar game last fall. Both 4-year-old male bears should be about 700 pounds right now, with a chance of hitting 1,000 pounds before they’re done. (Female Sadie, who’s a little more camera-shy, weighed 450 last fall.) All three were rescued as unrelated orphan cubs in Alaska; they’ve been here nearly two years. I hope they stay this playful when they’re fully grown.

Just having a ball

The seven dolphins of Discovery Bay couldn’t have known everything (or anything) going on outside their stadium yesterday: that it was April Fool’s Day or that 75-degree temps and the first day of “farm babies” had the zoo bursting at the seams, with nearly 11,500 visitors counted by 3 p.m. Nor could they have known that little Spree, who made friends in recent months with three visiting dolphins in the back pool, would return to Chicago with them when their Brookfield Zoo pool renovations are done — a plan announced the previous day. Still, the dolphins must have known something was up. I spent an hour in the stadium before a training session started, and from eleven to noon, they never stopped playing ball.

The phrase “shared solitude” came to mind as I watched them. Each dolphin had a ball, and each dolphin seemed engrossed in tossing that ball to … well, nobody. As usual, Semo shared the show pool with his mother-daughter girlfriends April and Allie (a trio that does not play well with Spree; hence her planned departure). Semo clutched a faux football between his jaws; April clasped a small beach ball beneath a pectoral fin. Once or twice a minute, at least one ball flew through the air, hit the water and floated for a few desultory moments before someone’s jaws reclaimed it. In the rear pool where the Brookfield Zoo mom and her two young daughters had befriended Spree, the dolphins were harder to see — but there, too, beach balls repeatedly sailed through the air, sometimes passing each other in flight. No music was playing, and no trainers were encouraging the sport. But the dolphins devoted themselves to their shared activity with an attention span unknown to most small children (and many adults).

Because Allie is pregnant and Semo and April are senior citizens, we don’t have full-scale dolphin shows, and training sessions don’t always follow a consistent schedule. But when guests asked when the next one was coming, I told them the spontaneous ball game was as good as a show. Moving on to my next scheduled post as the “official” training session began, I felt like I’d already seen one.