Fur-baby explosion

I’ve spent nearly a month of this summer away from the zoo, and what did I miss? Babies, mostly — home-grown Minnesota fur-babies, either born on site (lynx kittens) or rescued from the wild (moose calves). There’s a healthy batch of both: four kittens and six moose orphans that came our way via the DNR. Here are a couple of the kittens, who only recently started venturing into the exhibit (so maybe I didn’t miss that much after all). With all the high-speed scampering, getting all four and their mom in the same frame was out of the question. To see a previous generation of our lynx kittens attempting to navigate trees when they were a bit older than this, I refer you to my post from two birth cycles ago, An Epic Feline Frolic.

Minnesota Zoo lynx kitten in stream

lynx kittens and logs

The new lynx and moose are all somewhat more than three months old now, in late August, although the moose calves were born in separate batches over a period of nearly three weeks. Those calves have begun rotating in pairs through the outdoor exhibit, learning to nibble leaves from branches as they’re gradually weaned off bottle-feeding.

Minnesota Zoo moose calves

Northern Trail supervisor Diana, in the exhibit with the calves below, said this pair weighed about 180 pounds when I took these photos in early August. They’re coming along nicely since their discovery by DNR researchers as part of an ongoing study about declining moose populations in northeastern Minnesota.

moose calves and Diana

Minnesota Zoo moose artifactsA new volunteer feature this summer, besides our outdoor Big Bugs exhibit and the Conservation Carousel you walk by en route to Big Bugs, is the  “conservation cart” by the carousel. Inside, along with all the information about bees and other pollinators (a topic for another post) are moose “bench talk” artifacts: a section of antler rack, a piece of pelt, a jar of the “moose chow” that supplements the leaves and twigs in a zoo moose’s diet. My favorite moment so far with the antlers followed a question like the ones I explored in my previous post: “How did the moose die?” This gave me the perfect opening to talk about the temporary nature of antlers (shed naturally every December) compared with the more permanent nature of horns, and the lack of antlers in most deer species’ females (except caribou), and how antler growth is a response to hormone levels, which react to seasons and their varying hours of daylight. Moose are struggling in Minnesota, the southern tip of their geographic range, but nothing gives you hope for a species’ future like a big batch of thriving babies.


Pelted with questions

Every year, I forget that May is a crazy whirlwind of school groups at the zoo — and every year, I’m reminded. Volunteers are encouraged to stroll or sit with animal pelts, or skins, year-round, and for families who visit the zoo often, those skins are a familiar sight. But last month also reminded me that for the many children from families that don’t visit the zoo — or hunt, for that matter — they’re a disorienting  sight that demands context. So the questions come pouring out, repeatedly, in high-pitched voices: “Is it dead?” “Did you kill that?” And sometimes, softly, “Oh, sad.”

Sharon Bob puma lynx

That’s when fellow volunteers like Sharon and Tom (seen here with the lynx and puma pelt, respectively) jump in with the context: We never kill an animal for its pelt at the zoo. For the highly endangered sea otter, for instance, it’s not just “sad” but illegal to do so. But in previous centuries, in a world without retail stores, the ability to hunt wasn’t recreational: It kept humans from freezing as well as starving. (A standout phrase from our bison “bench talk” is “SuperTarget of the Great Plains” — Native Americans used every part of the animal as food, shelter or tool.)

Our zoo pelts come from animals who died of natural causes; many come via the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, a partner in lots of zoo projects. Death is sad but also natural, and the pelts give us a chance to talk about varying lifespans, special adaptations (the lynx, my favorite pelt, has big furry feet for pursuing its prey, the snowshoe hare, across snowdrifts) and the animal’s native climate. It’s also a chance for the animal to “live on” and a chance for kids to “pet” a wild animal they would never touch otherwise. The hair or fur often feels rougher or softer than you’d expect just from looking. And my momentary discomfort at a high-pitched “Did you kill that?” (I can’t begin to imagine killing an animal) reminds me that the squealed question is just another opportunity to educate.

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.


Meet the fox snake

It’s been awhile since I’ve been newly certified to demo a zoo animal, so it was a nice surprise Thursday to come in for my volunteer shift, pick up my schedule and find a fox snake fact sheet and quiz attached. Snakes are my favorite and primary critter to demonstrate, and this new (to me) variety joins the bullsnake, milk snake, cornsnake and Western hognose as one of the Minnesota Zoo snakes I’ve had the good fortune to hold, discuss and write about over the years. Once we’d studied our fact sheets and passed our quizzes, fellow volunteer Carol and I went behind the scenes for a test run with this new (to us) reptile.

Minnesota Zoo fox snakeThese guys have the blotches and coloration of a milksnake, share the southern Minnesota habitat of the bullsnake (both like to hang out near the Twin Cities area’s three major rivers) and boast a silky skin texture that reminds me of the hognose. Like most of the snakes we present to the zoo-going public, they kill mice and other small rodents by constriction (and ingest a weekly thawed mouse at the zoo). And their name? Supposedly they can emit a “musky fox-like odor” if handled too aggressively — a Zoomobile staffer described it as a milder form of skunk — though we happily did not experience this in our first encounter. With any luck, I won’t experience it in the later ones, either.

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.

My favorite falcon?

Okay, I may not know enough types of falcons to have a legitimate favorite (and the owl remains my favorite raptor, that less specific bird-of-prey category). But proving the zoo’s thesis that you grow fondest of the species that you meet in person, I developed a keen interest in the American kestrel after a recent Close Encounters session by the turtle tank between Tropics and the Minnesota Trail. The encounter was advertised only as “Meet a Bird of Prey,” scheduled for a time when I did not have a “must-cover” volunteer assignment elsewhere. So I went to see what kind of bird it was.

American kestrel with Mary

Zoo staffer Mary presented kestrel Miici, whose name she described as an Indian word for “eat.” Miici is a former pet, which makes her “imprinted” on humans for food. (The zoo feeds her mouse chunks and mealworms.) The Warner Nature Center, which has a densely informative page on kestrels and other types of raptors, advises against adopting a kestrel as a house pet — which may be tempting, since they’re robin-sized and cute. But even as the smallest falcon, weighing just under 5 ounces (or the weight of a tennis ball), they’re an aggressive hunter, with a raptor’s hooked beak and sharp talons.

American kestrel head turnCamera-shy Miici kept turning her head every time I took her picture — not the full backward-facing 135 degrees that an owl head can turn, but much farther than our own limited range of motion. She also bobbed her head up and down, telescoping her neck, to an amusing extent. Mary described some of her falcon features — the black marks under a kestrel’s eyes serve the same function as the similar but artificial marks on a football player’s face: to absorb sunlight so it doesn’t reflect into the eyes. Kestrels are found throughout North America, especially near open areas where they can spot ground-dwelling prey with their excellent long-distance vision. At the zoo, in a season less bitterly cold than this one, a staff-led encounter with Miici would typically happen outdoors. I look forward to meeting her again on Lakeside Plaza in a gentler season.

Obsessed with owls

owl salt-and-pepper shakersThey’ve been taking up long-term residence in my subconscious and my Facebook feed for the past couple of months; I’ve been holding the door partway closed because that’s my knee-jerk response to popular things. But once I decide there’s a good reason for the popularity — in this case, gorgeousness blending with oddness and a hint of mystery — I tend to succumb. I bought these owl-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers. I started following The Owl Pages on Facebook, where at least a couple of striking new owl photos get delivered to my eyes each day. (The Owl Pages website breaks down owls by subspecies.) Then the zoo’s education department and volunteer corps, in its continuing “animal per month” interpretation focus, declared January to be “for the birds.” Technically, owls are raptors, with their talons and their sharp hooked beaks, but they’re frequent players in the zoo’s bird show, and their fact sheets are in the information booth we volunteers are staffing at the Tropics trailhead this month. (The Tropics aviary is the best place to see birds at the zoo this time of year.) Beyond the bird show, the place to see an owl at the zoo is in the Minnesota Trail’s porcupine exhibit.

snowy owl wing

snowy owlMy fellow Thursday volunteer Joel Hillyer took these three photos and graciously gave me permission to share them.  This snowy owl spent a few weeks in the porcupine exhibit in our Minnesota Trail before rejoining the bird show. (From a recent bird show, I learned that snowy owls are the largest owl by weight in Minnesota at just over 3 pounds. The state’s largest owl by surface area is the great gray owl, who’s about 2 feet long.)

great horned owl on Minnesota TrailOur usual on-exhibit resident is a great horned owl — also the type of owl I periodically hear hooting in my yard in winter, their mating season. Found throughout North America, everywhere from dense forests to city parks, they’re the largest North American owl with ear tufts and eat a variety of rodents and other animals — even skunks!

owl artifacts, bench talkCementing my obsession was the discovery of an owl-themed “bench talk” among the other Minnesota Trail boxes. Owls have feathers all the way down to their talons, as you can see here. If our eyes were as proportionately large in our face as an owl’s, we’d have eyes the size of oranges. Owls can’t shift their eyes from side to side, but they can swivel their heads at least two-thirds of the way around to see what’s behind them. And female owls are quite a bit bigger than male owls. These are just a few of the owl facts I’ve filed in my brain so far.

owl sounds on Minnesota TrailEven if you can’t see the great horned owl on the Minnesota Trail, you can hear the different calls made by different species using this handy trailside display. Besides the whoo-ing of my occasional “yard owl,” I still have to memorize more of their calls — just one more detail I plan to absorb about this species as my fascination continues to unfold.

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