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 starting¬†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.