Feathered Tales: Bling for the Birds

Welcome to Feathered Tales! This series of monthly blog posts explore the day-to-day lives of the wonderful birds that live here at Brookfield Zoo. Last month, we began our journey following birds as they arrived at Brookfield Zoo for the first time. This month, we explore an important step that every bird at the zoo goes through before they join their new home: getting set up with a ‘nametag’ to set them apart from the rest.

At Brookfield Zoo, there are more bird residents than any other class of animal. It’s easy to see how, when you look about at the many flocks of feathered friends kept throughout the zoo. Wild Encounters, for example, is home to a flock of over five hundred parakeet individuals.

Spread amongst various areas across the zoo, animal care specialists care for almost one thousand different birds, making up 96 different species! Many of these birds live in large flocks, so it might seem like an impossible task to be able to tell all of these individuals apart from one another.

Fortunately, the animal care specialists of Brookfield Zoo know nothing of impossible. To be able to properly ensure each and every one of these animals are happy and healthy, care staff have developed various organizational methods to identify one bird from another. To do so, they set each bird up with a little bit of jewelry. Every bird in Brookfield is outfitted with a bit of unique bling so that they can be properly distinguished from each other, acting as a ‘nametag’ for that bird. The materials for this band vary from species to species, from small beads for tiny passerines all the way up to PVC bands on large birds like the Victoria crowned pigeon.

Fresh out of their month of quarantine, the pair of Puna teal discussed in last month’s issue are now enjoying their new digs in the Free Flight area of the Reptiles & Birds building. But before they could do so, care staff had to be sure they could tell the two birds apart. Puna teals are sexually monomorphic, which means that males and females are fairly identical. So even though one is male and the other female, care staff had to set up a way to tell the two apart to keep a record of how they have been enjoying their new home.

Enter the bands. Each of the Puna teals was given a pair of anklets to set them apart. These bands are carefully administered by animal care staff below the knee joint and above the foot, just tight enough to stay on while remaining loose enough to slide comfortably a bit on the leg. One of these bands is a colored tie to make identification easy from a distance. The other is metal and has a series of letters and numbers on it to ensure that, if the other band were to fall off, care staff can always properly identify who’s who. When Reptiles & Birds reopens, be sure to look out for our handsome male Puna teal rocking a red band on his left leg, and our lovely female with a blue band on her right leg.

This banding method is especially important when looking at areas with flocks of the same species of bird. One such large flock is the Taveta golden weavers in the Habitat Africa: Kopje building. When all together during the breeding season, there are more than fifty of these vocal, golden birds building intricate nests at the same time in the open area at the center of the building. Despite the crowd, care staff still manage to get eyes on each of these individual birds on a regular basis. By feeding in an off-exhibit area, they can watch as the entire flock moves through to get some grub. Bands are immensely important to tell each bird apart as they briefly fly through. Each bird wears a combination of colored bands that are unique to the individual, rather than each bird having its own color. A single bird might flaunt two different colors on the same leg so as to set themselves apart from the rest of their large flock. Using a base assortment of ten easily identifiable colors, care staff are able to identify who’s who at a glance, and visually inspect their wellbeing consistently.

Besides the importance of monitoring animal well-being, the bands that zoo birds flaunt can be used to denote other information important to the individual. The Humboldt penguin population in the Living Coast building wears their bands a little differently than most other birds; slim plastic bands are comfortably placed upon the thin part of an individual’s wing for this species, rocking a colorful bracelet instead of an anklet.

Care staff uses these bands to denote important information, both biological and social, about these fish-eating friends. If a penguin is wearing its band on its right wing, that means that it is a male penguin, and bands worn on the left wing denote female penguins. Additionally, there are various fashionable colors amongst the group guests see in their home at the Rocky Shores enclosure. But if you see two penguins strutting about with matching colored bands, it means that they are a mating pair. Since Humboldt penguins tend to stick together in monogamous pairs, they wear these ‘wedding bands’ together year after year to make it clear who is partnered with who.

Animal care staff get to know and monitor the wellness of each and every one of the hundreds of birds here at Brookfield Zoo. Every bird is banded before they are given access to their new home. As we continue along our bird’s eye journey through the zoo, we are finally ready to see the new neighborhood! Next month, we will explore the exciting introduction process as a new bird comes to its enclosure for the first time. We continue in June! See you then!

- Written by Alex Kirkeeng, Animal Care Specialist, Bird Department

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Posted: 5/12/2021 1:48:27 PM by Sean Keeley

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Since the opening of Brookfield Zoo in 1934, the Chicago Zoological Society has had an international reputation for taking a cutting-edge role in animal care and conservation of the natural world. Learn more about the animals, people, and research that make up CZS here at our blog.


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