Feathers on the walkway

I am not a patient person or a frequent birdwatcher. These two traits are directly related. On any given Thursday, I generally stride through the Tropics aviary with my eyes front and center, focused on my next destination. Last week, however, I froze in my tracks when confronted by a Malay great argus pheasant on the path.

This type of brazen encounter isn’t unheard-of, but it’s not usual, either. Fellow volunteer Michele, who was already on the walkway with the pheasant when I arrived, says her shins have been wing-slapped by a Victoria crowned pigeon who sometimes frequents the path. (Michele says the pigeon targets the khaki pants worn by most staffers and volunteers.) When a small flotilla of moms and strollers arrived, Michele helped them form a line to one side of the pheasant, and the moms discouraged their toddlers from actually touching the bird, although they wanted to. Eventually, Mr. Argus fluttered up to perch on a railing and show off his plumage some more.

The pheasant convinced me to linger on the path and peer deeper into the dark recesses of foliage on either side. It was an extremely dark and gloomy day, but splashes of color and life dotted the branches.

This nesting Nicobar pigeon seemed oblivious to the commotion just a few feet from her perch; nothing was going to startle or dislodge her. Nearby, black-naped orioles, with their bright yellow coloring, fluttered within easy sight of the walkway. Looking them up online, I realized that their tropical Asian range includes the Nicobar Islands (Great and Little Nicobar), northeast of Malaysia and south of India. So they’re close to the pigeons in the wild, as well.

No bird-feet were strolling the walkway when I passed through yesterday, but the Nicobar pigeons were more active, and one took the pheasant’s previous spot on the railing:

I’d been looking hard for a fairy bluebird the previous week, and yesterday I managed to capture one in my lens during the 90-second window he gave me. I didn’t see another oriole, though. Sustained birdwatching requires more patience than I possess, but even a little bit of lingering can pay off.

Hedgehogs, snakes & gender

Last week, I demo’d an African hedgehog; this week, a bullsnake. These hands-on encounters last no more than 15 minutes, to avoid stressing the animal. Not every creature gets touched, and not every creature reacts when you touch it. This varies not just from species to species, but also from individual to individual. The three African hedgehogs I’ve handled vary widely in sensitivity: Tulip, a girl, starts pooping after the first five minutes; Aspen, also female, is more mellow but curls up into a ball of spikes when lifted — a standard protective measure for the species. Then there’s this character:

We were told he’s male, though he doesn’t have a name yet. Both my demo partner and I picked him up last week and got this wonderfully nonchalant yoga-pose response. Everyone wants to touch a fuzzy-looking hedgehog when they see it, but the one time my bare finger grazed one by accident, I bled a little. Don’t confuse it with a baby porcupine, though! These guys are native to Africa and southern Europe, where they hibernate at temperatures below 45F. What we know as Groundhog Day started in Europe as Hedgehog Day. I don’t know if Nameless is less sensitive because he’s male; my sample size here is too small, and I dislike gender stereotypes in any species. But last week’s demo revelation led me in a similar direction: William, always the calmer of our two bullsnakes, has turned out to be Willa.

The revelation, according to Zoomobile staffer Chris, came a couple of weeks ago when “William,” now 4 years old and nearly 5 feet long, laid 20 eggs. S/he had always been labeled “gender unknown” — for that matter, so is Draco, our more wiggly and challenging bullsnake. Draco, like Willa, could still join the ranks of regendered reptiles in my world, including fellow volunteer Darlene’s male box turtle, Sally, and Roger the alligator  — the real-life female that got loose in Minnesota and found a zoo home this week, not the animated movie character from “Madagascar.” In the meantime, I’ll keep trying not to anthropomorphize the animals. It’s hard to say whether I’ll succeed at this, of course.