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Wildlife Counts in the Oakland Zoo

by | June 3rd, 2010

The most common wildlife to encounter throughout the urban landscape is of the musical and feathered variety. Here at the Oakland Zoo, there are a few avian species that are reliably seen in exhibits pilfering the Zoo animals’ food. Many more, however, may only be spied as flashes of shifting shapes and sound as they navigate through green cover. Unknown to most visitors, many are flocking to bird feeders that were put out just for them.

Niger Feeder in EM Butterfly Garden Photo Credit: Shauna Lavi

Hanging outside of office windows or in butterfly gardens throughout the Zoo, these feeders and the surrounding plants provide nourishment and habitat for birds that call the Zoo and the surrounding Knowland Park, their home. Some species are year-round residents, while others are migratory birds that rely on the grounds seasonally or as a staging area along their route.

A small group of us, Zoo employees and volunteers, decided to investigate what species are on Zoo grounds and the surrounding area. We began this past season by counting the Oakland Zoo’s backyard birds as part of a citizen-science endeavor. Project Feeder Watch is a winter-long study performed throughout North America in an effort to track broad-scale movements of winter bird populations. This educational and research endeavor is jointly led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. From November to April, participants vigilantly watch birds that are attracted to food, water, or plantings in their backyards or nature centers.

It often surprises people that these anecdotal backyard reports have an important niche in the world of conservation biology. Published in scientific journals, the data from such counts allows wildlife biologists to glean a big picture image of the distribution and abundance of many avian species, and to track changes in related trends over time. For example, if FeederWatch data indicates that a species seems to be in decline over many years in an area, that information can be (and has been) used for further research and conservation action.

In a time of global climate change and rapid avian decline, this citizen-gleaned data can become increasingly important. The connection to local wildlife that one finds through such activities as birding is also a critical part of such ventures. I’ve never met a birder that didn’t feel invested in the survival of the species on the other side of the lens. I’ve also never seen a person watching the avian acrobats of the sky, water, and land without being filled with a sense of awe and excitement.

Edna Mack Butterfly Garden Photo Credit: Shauna Lavi

In our 21 weeks of counting in the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo, we saw more than thirty avian species associated with the feeders, ten of which we saw during every count. There were a few birds, such as the resident Red-tailed Hawks and a lone transient Fox Sparrow in the Edna Mack Butterfly Garden, that we also got to know as individual members of our wildlife community. As that fox sparrow traveled north this Spring, I was happy to know that we provided such a wonderful feeding ground to give such birds the energy they need for their daily and seasonal aerial feats.

With the maintenance of beautiful gardens and grounds in the Oakland Zoo, we are working to enhance the lives of the Zoo animals as well as to conserve native wildlife. Each one of us can do our part to create more suitable urban habitat for our wild friends, one tree, one nest-box, one feeder at a time.

Animals of the Oakland Zoo’s Backyard

by | March 24th, 2010

Mallard Pair in Veldt Exhibit Photo Credit: Shauna Lavi

Among the Reticulated giraffes and other hoofstock in the African Veldt exhibit, one is likely to notice much smaller avian species speckling the scene.  “Do those birds belong in there?” I am often asked by students while leading tours. Little do they know how provocative that question really is.

Aside from the Egyptian Geese that are part of the exhibit, the two other avian species you are likely to see are ravens and mallards. The latter two are common native residents that find the Veldt to be a suitable habitat to eat, sleep, and even breed in. They also may compete with Zoo animals for their food, as was the case with the ravens thieving from the Griffon Vultures. If you ask the keepers if those ravens belong on the Veldt, you might not hear a resounding, “yes”.

Though some of these seemingly rogue individuals may be in the exhibits to the keepers’ chagrin, they are some of my favorite animals to interpret about. This is due in part to the exciting scientific facts one can teach about them; for example, ravens are in a family of birds (Corvidae) that have been proven to have an intellect on par with elephants and chimpanzees.

More important than the interesting factoids, however, is the overarching truth that such species are the ones that children are likely to encounter in local parks and their own backyards. If they can connect with their non-human neighbors that have evolved to “belong” in the Bay Area, they might develop a vested interest in making sure they can be here for a long time to come.

In the Conservation & Education department, we strive to instill this excitement for all wildlife in each and every participant of our programs.   While teaching in our classrooms, or out on tour in the Zoo and adjacent Arroyo Viejo Creek, we tell the stories of wild lives throughout the globe and how to conserve them.  I love teaching at the Zoo because of the amazing representation of animal diversity. On any given program, I can call upon the global perspective that exotic animals provide, while echoing the very local messages the native wildlife bring home.

Next time you walk through the Oakland Zoo, keep your eyes open for the myriad of birds flying overhead, the Wild Turkeys living with elephants or Western Fence Lizards doing “lizard pushups” next to African lions.  Those coincidental opportunities can foster the vital lifelines between local wildlife and us, the people in their communities.  They remind us that every organism belongs in some native habitat, and it is up to us to conserve and create those wild places in our own backyards.

In this series of blogs, I will highlight those native wild animals throughout the Zoo that you might not pay much attention to otherwise. Welcome to the backyard of the Oakland Zoo!