Have you ever wondered what a day in the life of a zookeeper was like? With each visit to a zoo, my daughter and I like to chat about how much fun it must be to get a “behind the scenes” glimpse of the goings on, how the keepers care and feed the animals, and honestly, we have always been curious as to what it looks like.
This autumn, my teen daughter had one of her dreams come true: Zookeeper for a Day at National Aviary in Pittsburgh! An accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the aviary is the only independent indoor nonprofit zoo dedicated to birds in all of America.
They care for well over 500 birds representing 150 species on a daily basis and, you know what that means, there’s always a hustle behind the scenes to make sure the birds are feed, stay healthy, and even put on a good show.
We were delighted to sample a little bit of everything during our visit, from helping the birds paint (a few are skilled artists!) to making sure they maintain the proper diet. We had the time of our lives.
Painting with the Parrots
Our first plan of action was painting with a Blue-Fronted Amazon Parrot named Lucky. Painting is used for not only recreation but it’s a great way to mimic experiences that they would do in the wild, like grabbing sticks to make nests.
My daughter and I picked out two colors each and Lucky put his artistic skills to work via nontoxic paint and actual canvases. A couple of the in-house penguins like to dip their feet in the paint and create masterpieces as well, and visitors can register for Penguin Paintings via the official website.
After we learned all about avian painting program we headed out to Penguin Point to assist the zookeepers in the morning feeding of its 18 African Penguins, which are fed three times per day. Before the feeding began, we learned all about a penguin’s diet, what type of fish each one likes best, and how daily vitamins and minerals are added to the fishs’ gills to ensure the penguins stay healthy. The keepers have a chart and, after each penguin downs a fish, my daughter was able to check them off on the chart.
What I loved best is how a couple of the African Penguins were more interested in my daughter and I than what was for breakfast. Getting to stand a foot away from a couple of penguins was definitely a highlight for both of us!
FEEDING TIME FOR THE REST OF THE BIRDS
There’s always something going on behind the scenes at National Aviary and most times it involves- you guessed it- food! We took a quick trip to the kitchen where the avian diets are prepared and got a glimpse at the ingredients. Not only are seeds and berries used, but the zookeepers and rest of the team add vitamins and minerals, worms, and even a few crickets to the mix. The carnivorous birds dine on thawed mice and chicken pieces as well.
I had to ask why the meat-eating birds are given frozen/thawed meat in their diets and the reason is simple: if the birds were given live mice or chicken their food could attack and injure them. Makes perfect sense to me.
A Trip to the Hospital
If one of the zookeeper at National Aviary ever sees a bird that looks injured or sick, it’s immediately taken to the on-site hospital for care and rehabilitation. We were able to visit the hospital to learned about the proper care of the birds who call the Aviary home.
My daughter fell in love with Milo, a 14-year-old duck who is now under permanent hospital care compliments of her long life (the average life for a duck is around 6 or 7) and a couple of internal issues. She was such a sweetheart and is part of the aviary’s educational program. And, no worries about her being in a teeny cage: her spacious home was being cleaned when we visited.
Our last stop of the day was my daughter’s favorite- a flamingo encounter! We met our guide in the Wetlands exhibit, stepped through a secured gate. Off we went to sit on a giant log to interact with the flamingoes.
Our zookeeper gave us the scoop on why flamingoes are pink (it’s compliments of the way they process canthaxanthin, a naturally occurring dye found in brine shrimp and some algae), explained to us that the birds do not liked to be touched but they like to touch humans (in the wild, if another animal is touching them it means danger), and let us in on why their “knees are on backward”- it turns out that the joint that looks like a knee is actually an ankle bone.
We were given a chance to feed the flamingoes by holding a bowl filled with food pellets and water. Beaker, one of the flamingoes, took us up on our offer and managed to get my daughter soaked while he ate. She loved it!
How You Can Be a Zookeeper at the National Aviary
Happily, all bird lovers are able to encounter what we did during our Zookeeper for a Day program. I was delighted to learn that guests may customize their experiences and what type of birds they’d like to learn more about. Want to take part in a zookeeper program at National Aviary? Here’s all of the information to get you started.
I was hosted by the National Aviary to give you fine folks the scoop on what makes it so great for families. I was not asked to state a particular point of view and all opinions are my own!