Dragon days

Hello again! I’m back here blogging after a long break, inspired partly by a new year but especially by some of the zoo encounters I had at the end of the old one. In 2015, Christmas and New Year’s Eve both fell on Thursdays, my weekly volunteer day. And both days brought a remarkable batch of families to the zoo — inquisitive kids with parents who encouraged them to linger and ask me questions, or who saw me with an artifact and pulled their kids over to take a look. As one dad said to his son, “Here — come learn something.”

komodo monitor

If I want to pack a lot of facts into one half-hour session, I stand by the Komodo dragon exhibit and hold the Komodo-jaw artifact. Since the passing of an elderly Komodo monitor named Gasher, who received acupuncture treatments to ease his arthritis, the exhibit’s sole occupant has been this young guy, whose name I don’t know yet. (The Komodo is one of those animals that doesn’t necessarily have a “public” name, but when you attend volunteer update seminars, you learn what zookeepers call them.)

komodo descending

How can I tell this guy is young? Aside from his relative smallness (a male Komodo can get up to 200 pounds and 7 feet long), he still has a blush of color on his scales, and he still climbs the big log in the middle of his exhibit. Baby Komodos climb trees soon after they hatch and stay up there for several years, evading hungry predators — including their own parents. Since they’re highly endangered, with a native habitat restricted to the Indonesian islands, feasting on their own offspring is not the smartest survival strategy for the world’s largest living lizards. (In terms of interesting facts that are also kind of alarming and scary, Komodos win hands-down. I’ve learned out to leave out details like that one when I’m talking to smaller or more sensitive-looking kids.)

komodo tail

When I’m standing by the exhibit holding the jawbone artifact , I show kids how a Komodo, like its reptilian cousin the snake, can unhinge its jaw to swallow a small animal whole or take big sloppy bites of a much larger animal — possibly even a water buffalo. Komodos can eat 80 percent of their body weight in a single meal — keeping in mind, of course, that for these and other predators, there’s no guarantee of a meal every day in the wild. At the zoo, they’re fed various meats including chicken and quail — and live in a warm, safe, tropical space where nobody (resident or visitor) gets eaten at all.






Sensitive spooning

Eleven years into volunteering at the zoo, I’ve noticed that I go through favorite-critter phases, with a “best thing at the zoo right now” orientation. Because the South American aviary on the Tropics trail was a new addition last fall, with its waterfall and its chorus of chirping, and because that leafy green trail is such a refuge in winter, that’s my “best thing” this season. And my favorite bird in that aviary is the roseate spoonbill, which the Audubon Society accurately describes as “gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close.”

roseate spoonbill posing

roseate spoonbill close-up

Standing about 30 inches, the spoonbill is related to a flamingo and looks like one, too — until you notice the bill. In this aviary, that’s not always easy to do, because our two spoonbills — like their other on-exhibit relatives, the scarlet ibis — like to perch in the treetops, beak tucked under wing. But first thing in the morning, one spoonbill likes to pace the lower level, brushing the ground with that amazing implement on his face. (On the day I took all these photos, zookeeper Ben told me this one is the male and has a slight wing injury from some mysterious phase of his pre-Minnesota life. The roosting female would be a bit smaller-bodied, and smaller-billed.)

spoonbill scavengingThis big, odd, beautiful shore bird was behaving much as he would in the wild, where spoonbills sweep their heads from side to side in search of tasty morsels, especially in shallow water. The spoon-shaped bill is a sensitive instrument full of nerve endings, and when its owner scoops up a mouthful of water, that bill has the advantages of a sieve; it opens slightly, the water leaks out the sides and the tasty bits of seafood get swallowed, along with the occasional piece of plant life.

Minnesota Zoo roseate spoonbill crouching

They’re in our South American exhibit for a reason, but roseate spoonbills can also be found along U.S. shores in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. In our zoo space, they coexist with several smaller species besides the ibis. My second-favorite bird species in this aviary, the black-necked stilts, were keeping anxiously clear of the much larger Mr. Spoonbill, who strode purposefully across every inch of the exhibit in the 20 minutes I spent hovering with my camera. Eventually he fluttered up to join his mate in the treetops, and I craned my neck for one last look before moving along.

spoonbill and stilt



To the bat cave!

Meet Fang. He’s an Indian fruit bat, on view at the zoo’s Tropics trailhead throughout the spooky, creepy month we’re calling “Howlzooween,” and he’s a real kid-magnet. Without fail, kids approach the bat booth in fascination and ask the same two questions in rapid succession: “Is that real? Is it alive?” This might get old for the volunteers spending half-hour shifts at the booth this month, repeating “yes” (real) and “no” (artfully preserved), except that these questions are just our jumping-off point to share other bat facts. And there are plenty of those.

Fang the fruit bat at Minnesota Zoo

The world contains 1,300 species of bats, most varied in the tropics but scattered pretty much everywhere but Antarctica and the Arctic Circle. Our own Tropics trail is home to a cave of 90 fruit bats representing three species. Unlike Fang, all seven of Minnesota’s native bat species are insect-eaters — including the little brown bat, which can devour 150 mosquitoes in 15 minutes. When they’re not bug-hunting — or pollinating, as fruit bats do; who knew!? — bats prefer to hang upside-down in enclosed spaces like mines or caves. Two exceptions: If they’re giving birth or relieving themselves, bats can hang right side up by the “thumbs” on their wings. Northern bats either migrate or hibernate in winter, depending on their species. The hibernators, including the little brown bat, are increasingly at risk from white nose syndrome, which damages their wings and disrupts their hibernation, driving them out into the fatal cold in search of food and water.

Fang facing usOne of my fellow Thursday volunteers has a long-standing love of bats, so needless to say, this month’s focus has delighted her. While I’ve never feared this flying mammal, my regard is more intellectual and wary. But now that the zoo has taught me so much about them — and given me a chance to teach others — I’ve gained new respect for their place in the ecosystem, and concern for their future.

Rattles and rosettes

Week before last, when it was finally warm enough to walk the Northern Trail and enjoy it, I was just passing the Amur leopard exhibit when a school group came running and squealing “Cheetah! CHEE-TAH!” I just had to turn back and gently clear things up (“That’s actually a leopard, and his name is Chobby!”) One thing you learn as a zoo volunteer who’s not a biologist, though, is to anticipate the likely follow-up question to any statement and make sure you can answer it, and I left the exhibit thinking, “Good thing none of them asked me how to tell the difference. Better look that up.”

leopard mom and kitten This is our leopard Polina and one of her cubs (now full-grown and living at another zoo in hopes of making still MORE cubs, since their species is nearly extinct in the wild). As I learned from The Wildcat Sanctuary  (whose website features types of wild cats I’d never even heard of) and Tiger Tribe, cheetahs have a different shape, befitting their status as the world’s fastest land mammal. About 30 pounds lighter than leopards on average, cheetahs are greyhound-shaped, with long legs, deep chests, narrow flanks, small heads and more doglike snouts compared with the classic “cat shape” of the leopard. And the cheetah’s spots are basically just polka-dots, while leopards have rosettes, or elaborate blotches that may or may not have spots at their center.

banana leafThe zoo is mainly about animals, yes, but March and early April brought reminders that it’s also about plants. We’ve spent recent weeks talking about them at the Tropics trailhead, the site of January’s bird talks and February’s frog talks. We had a variety of options and artifacts, but my two favorites were bananas and coconuts. (Other volunteers focused on orchids or bamboo. All four can be found along the Tropics trail.) Someone made this lovely fabric banana leaf, which isn’t even as large as some of the real ones can get — up to 9 feet long and 2 feet wide. I have learned to stop saying “banana tree” — bananas grow on plants, which despite the huge leaves do not have woody trunks. Tropics dwellers cooking over open fires may wrap their food in banana leaves, making them “nature’s aluminum foil.”

shark rattleMy second-favorite plant artifact: the shark rattle. It’s made of coconut shells, and Pacific Islander fishermen use it to attract sharks: Dangle one over the side of a boat, shake it, and wait for the vibrations to mimic a school of fish (at least in the shark’s mind). Kids like to take it and shake it themselves. Then I tell them to look for the coconut palm across from the top of the tropical reef. If I can use an artifact to make a guest see a familiar object in a new way, or notice a feature of the zoo they’d otherwise pass without a glance, then I’ve achieved one of my main goals as a volunteer.


A frog in my throat

zoo volunteer with frog puppetSo yeah, that’s me with a giant frog puppet. The zoo’s education folks (including us volunteers) continue to highlight one form of wildlife per month this winter at the Tropics trailhead, and as Froggy February winds down, I’m still marveling at how much educational mileage I’ve gotten out of this big fake frog. It pulls in kids of all ages like a magnet, and then I’m off to the races with frog facts. Wiggling my finger inside its cloth tongue, I explain that a frog’s real tongue moves faster than the human eye can see as it catches flies and other bugs, and that its eye sockets then push downward to help it swallow those bugs whole. I ask if kids can tell frogs from toads and then talk about dry, warty skin and short-legged hops as opposed to frogs’ smooth dampness, webbed feet and long leaps.

froggy FebruaryLast week I found a great way to illustrate those leaps: by putting this plastic frog, which resembles the leopard frog found widely in Minnesota, next to a measuring tape on the floor to show how far he can jump — 5 feet 4 inches, a figure that sticks in my head because it’s my own height. I asked kids to see if they could leap as far as a leopard frog in a single bound, and quite a few could. Others hopped down the length of the tape, and I told them they were actually toads — still a type of frog.

Minnesota Zoo bullfrogAnd here’s a live one —  our Minnesota Lodge bullfrog, whose size never fails to astound me. They’re the largest of our state’s 14 frog types (11 types excluding toads) at a maximum length of eight inches. Bullfrogs’ croak sounds like motors, leopard frogs’ like snoring; the interpretation booth has a handheld device that emits these and all the other types of croaks made by the 11 frogs. In a few days, the booth’s contents will switch from frog- to plant-related items, in anticipation of a spring that feels like it will never come. I’m not psyched up to talk about plants yet — but then, I wasn’t that excited about frogs at first, either. Until, eventually, I was.

Watermelon afloat

Now that she’s completed her series of swimming lessons, the zoo’s first baby tapir in 20 years — born about a month ago and described whimsically by the zoo as a fuzzy watermelon with legs — has landed on exhibit with her mom and the big pool. Before that, the zoo volunteer lounge kept her visible on webcam, and here she is trying out the baby pool back in her holding area (with her mom Bertie’s feet in the background).

baby tapir in pooltapir feetBefore we could see the baby on exhibit (which happened a couple of weeks ago, so yes, I’m playing catch-up here), her feet served as a screensaver in a computer in our lounge. An adult tapir’s weight may range from 500 to 900 pounds, but newborns weigh 11 to 20 pounds, so those feet are not as big as they look! Tapirs have four toes on their front feet but only three per foot in back. By the time our new girl is six or eight months old, those spots will fade and she’ll have the two-toned black-and-white appearance of an adult.

blurry baby tapir walkingAnd here she is on exhibit in one of my “impressionist” photos, as I call the blurry ones where the animal and I are both in motion. It was her first morning on public view, and quite a crowd had gathered, so we volunteers caught sight of her in quick bursts while trying not to block visitors’ view. She’s a perpetual motion machine with a funny, bouncy way of walking — almost like a horse (her distant relative) trotting. We all look forward to watching her grow up.

A pigeon and his person

It’s neither routine nor highly unusual to see a bird strolling or strutting the walkway in the zoo’s Tropics aviary. It’s more unusual to see a bird and a zookeeper interacting on the walkway together, as I did yesterday. Ben had just reentered the walkway, apparently after restocking some bird-food dishes in the jungly undergrowth, and this Victoria crowned pigeon followed him out and appeared to be stalking him.

Ben and the bird

As Ben told a gathering crowd of intrigued guests, his stack of supplies is functioning partly as a shield here, because this particular pigeon likes to wing-slap people’s legs. (This hurts the wings at least as much as the legs, so keepers discourage the behavior for the birds’ own good.) All Victoria crowned pigeons look basically the same, with males slightly larger (at up to 30 inches long and 5 pounds), but Ben says he knows this one by its leg-banding and also its personality, which seems less docile than website descriptions of the breed suggest. This man-bird pair seemed to have a warily affectionate “frenemy” type of vibe going on, and the pigeon rushed at me once with wings outspread when I got too close with the camera.

pigeon encounterSometimes zookeepers bestow their own names on the animals they care for, but Ben said that wasn’t the case with this guy. Nonetheless, he described Mr. Victoria (as I guess I’m calling him now) as a good dad to the two-month-old hatchling hidden somewhere in the aviary trees. That’s typical of this species, in which the dads choose the nesting site and do half-time duty incubating the single egg laid by their mate. Moms and dads also take turns feeding the hatchling “crop milk,” as explained by the Toronto Zoo, which had the most thorough and interesting pigeon page I could find.

Victoria crowned pigeon strutting

pigeon feet

As Ben pointed out, Victoria crowneds are the world’s largest living pigeon and a relative of the dodo bird — a 40-pounder in its heyday. Arguably the zoo’s most visually striking bird, these vividly blue creatures are native to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, where they’re a threatened species hunted for their feathers and their meat. They don’t look much like Queen Victoria to me, even with that fancy headgear, but they’re a lot of fun to watch, as long as you protect your shins.

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