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!