Visiting the Birds

Posted at 2:27 pm April 4, 2008 by Drew Searing

Visit-A-Job is a great program that allows our employees a chance to visit another department for the day.

 secretary birdSure, I was a little nervous on the morning of my Visit-A-Job at the Wild Animal Park’s Bird Department. Walking into a strange office with unknown people at an ungodly hour of the morning would be enough to make anyone edgy. When I opened the door to the office trailer, what greeted me instead was a room full of smiling faces and a Harry Potter-themed birthday cake. It was a keeper’s birthday and someone brought in an ice cream cake, which they graciously offered to all of us. Score! My first minute on the job and I’m already gorging on a Mississippi mud pie!

And already I saw a familiar face: the gal who brought in the cake was none other than Amy, whom I met, coincidentally, at my first Visit-A-Job years ago at the Zoo’s Bird Department. She may now be in a different department, but she still retains that bright smile. The second minute on the job and I already had a long-lost friend!

I immediately noticed the friendly cohesiveness of the staff. Don Sterner, animal care manager, runs a happy office, and it shows. After introductions and briefings, it was decided to place me with Fatima first, so I wouldn’t have to change my clothes. Fatima is a California condor keeper. What we had to go through with sanitary hygienic precautions to assure a sterile, aseptic environment surprised me. Had I started out in a different bird area, called a “string,” I would have had to go even further and actually change into different clothing. “You’re lucky, Drew,” whispered Fatima. “Many people do not get an opportunity to visit the condor area.”

 condor puppetBecause there were no chicks, only incubating eggs and copulating condor couples, I was allowed into the successive trailers. In one, Fatima placed a brand-new, just-arrived, fake-condor puppet-glove over my hand and showed me a gnarly, used one. (Here’s a video and more information about the 10th-grade student who made and donated the condor puppet.) We had to be super quiet around the holding pens as we snuck peeks through secret flaps on hidden windows. We could observe the condors on the computer as well, with the aid of conveniently placed cameras spaced around the compound. I was impressed.

My next assignment was to help out Sheila in “The Field.” She was almost as excited as I was! She used to work this string a year ago and missed “her babies.” Now, Sheila works up at condors, but on this day, she was substituting for another keeper. We counted and fed storks and pelicans, always vigilant of a stray gazelle that could stab with sharp horns as we leaned over to grab a food tray. Mammal keepers feed the ostriches, but they strutted over to us anyway.

Going in and out of the field was a scene right out of Jurassic Park. One door would open, we’d drive into a mini holding area, and the door behind us would close. Then the door in front of us would magically open, and we’d be amid chilled-out rhinos and giant, carrot-seeking giraffe heads. In fact, the makers of the Jurassic Park film came to the Wild Animal Park, it turns out, and copied the idea for their movie.

When lunchtime rolled around, the entire team dined together harmoniously in the break area. I wondered if my department would all eat together as a team if our scattered scheduling actually allowed for it.

From the lunch table, I jolted with Janessa to the “BBC.” I can’t remember what she said BBC stood for (moderator’s note: Bird Breeding Complex. Read the blog, BBC: Clapper Rail Chicks), but I call it “Back Behind the Canyon”! It took us a good 20 minutes to drive to it through miles of dirt back roads that I never knew existed. We ended up in a huge behind-the-scenes holding facility for large (smelly) birds. I never thought I’d use the words “adorable” and “vulture” in the same sentence, but the carrion-consuming cherubs I saw were just that. The charming chicks followed us around, flapping their fuzzy proto-wings, hoarsely calling out to me and their keeper-friend. Janessa showed me how close the October 2007 fire storms got to the pens (see blog, Fire Update from the Wild Animal Park), in some cases burning the plywood surrounding them or melting the plastic water tubing pipes. It was near the inferno detritus that I encountered secretary birds (pictured at top). Working with these lanky, feisty creatures was the closest I’ll ever come to working with velociraptors! These “dinosaurs” clucked and squawked loudly as they raced around their enclosure in unison. It made me realize that birds really ARE modern-day dinosaurs, and one was about to charge me!

My next assignment was to shadow Amy, who takes care of the birds in the Hidden Jungle aviary. Quetzals swiftly swooped by and manakins hovered colorfully near the misting system. Butterflies fluttered by, landing on guests’ heads and shoulders. I couldn’t think of a more beautiful work environment!

Heidi, a keeper in the Heart of Africa (HOA), then picked me up and carted us both to the HOA for a late feeding of rambunctious hornbills and even more reptile-like secretary birds.

The day was over before I knew it. Bottom line: my Visit-A-Job with Park birds and their keepers was a flight of fancy. I thank Don and his spirited flock for an amazing opportunity, and I thank the Zoological Society of San Diego for offering this employee-friendly program, which fosters pleasant morale and altruism between departments.

Drew Searing is a tour guide at the San Diego Zoo.

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3 Responses to “Visiting the Birds”

  1. Mae in NJ says:

    Sounds like a fun, but educational day! And you got paid for this! 🙂 Enjoyed your blog. Thank you for taking the time to write an entertaining diary of your Visit-A-Job day. Sounds like a really great idea to create comraderie among the staff. Glad the secretary bird did not attack you and you lived to write this blog!

  2. Stacy Lugo says:

    Hi, I just have a question about one of the birds at the zoo. A few years ago I saw a huge almost prehistoric looking bird at the zoo. It was quite large and a bit scary looking. It was outside in a cement pit in the ground. I don’t remember the name of it. Please help, I would like to know more about this creature. Thank you.

    Moderator note: It sounds like you were impressed by a dwarf cassowary. You can learn more about this kind of bird in the Animal Bytes section

  3. Annalisa Goode says:

    We were at the W.A.P. a few weeks ago and saw a large straight standing, large billed, light grey bird. It moved very slowly almost looked robotic. What is this prehistoric looking bird? I’ve already rulled out the dwarf cassowary when viewing a previous blog entry.


    Moderator’s note: Perhaps you saw a shoebill stork? Take a look at a blog (with image) about them: