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Monday, March 31, 2014

Littlest otters get practice time outside

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Communications
Photos by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Guntur, the infamously over-protective otter dad, has finally let the newest pups take their first steps outside!

The four pups—three girls and one boy born in January—have only had a few tiny adventures outdoors so far. Though they step out for only a few minutes at a time, the good news is that dad seems to be getting more comfortable each time.

It helps a lot that the pups’ have a dedicated family that also includes mom and four older brothers to show them the way.

Sometimes that means moving the pups around…

…and sometimes that means letting the pups figure out their own way.

The pups aren’t yet the most coordinated little movers, but they’re quite capable of planting themselves into prime snacking position, which we learned when keepers gave them some grubs outdoors.

Keep in mind if you’re planning a visit that the otters’ time outside is still quite irregular. Though we provide outdoor access, it’s ultimately their choice whether to go out and how long to spend out there. We ask for your patience for a few more weeks as the family gets settled!

Friday, March 28, 2014

New strategic vision for elephant program

Posted by: Deborah B. Jensen, President and CEO

Elephants have long played a role in the community and in our hearts. At Woodland Park Zoo, we have cared for elephants since we received our first one in 1921, funded in part by donations from local school children. 

Asian elephant Chai at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

I am pleased to announce that the zoo will commit $1.5 to $3 million to strengthen the Asian elephant program at the zoo, as well as play a key role in multiple elephant conservation arenas.

This pledge follows a six-month, critical and thorough external review of the zoo’s elephant program by the Elephant Task Force—a panel of local community representatives and internationally-distinguished scientists and animal care professionals—and a review of the Task Force’s report by the zoo’s Board of Directors and staff.

The new strategic direction of the zoo’s elephant program endorses many of the options given to the zoo by the Elephant Task Force, plus additional information regarding the zoo’s elephants, elephant conservation and education efforts. Key elements of the program entail:

  • Focusing the zoo’s Elephant Forest exhibit on the highly endangered Asian elephant species and growing the zoo’s program to support and implement the goals of the Species Survival Plan for Asian elephants, which is managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). 
  • Making significant improvements to the Elephant Forest exhibit and facilities
  • Playing an active role in the Wildlife Conservation Society’s international 96 Elephants conservation campaign: securing effective U.S. moratorium laws on ivory sales and bolstering elephant protection with additional advocacy funding; and educating the public about the devastating effects of the ivory trade.
  • Increasing the zoo’s commitment to Asian elephant conservation with our partner organizations in range countries. 
  • Developing enhanced guest experiences and educational programming in the Elephant Forest exhibit, allowing guests to interact with the zoo’s elephants and staff, and learn how they can make an impact in elephant conservation. 
  • Providing leadership to the next phase of AZA elephant welfare research and applied practice.

Getting up close to an elephant is an unforgettable experience at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Like you, we are also deeply concerned for the future of elephants in the wild. Our vision is that our investment will make an impact on reducing human-elephant conflict in the world, and inspire a growing respect for sharing the planet with these awe-inspiring animals.

Elephant raiding an oil palm plantation in Asia. Photo courtesy of Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife, Hutan Asian Elephant Conservation Project.

Two female Asian elephants, 47-year-old Bamboo and 35-year-old Chai, and one African elephant, 45-year-old Watoto, currently live at the zoo. As a component of our commitment to growing the Asian elephant program and moving to an all Asian herd, staff will begin formulating a plan to integrate Watoto into a herd at another AZA-accredited institution. AZA recommends that elephants be cared for in single species social groupings. 

African elephant Watoto at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo by Dennis Conner/Woodland Park Zoo.

With this new strategic direction, staff has initiated the process of identifying Asian elephants that can join Woodland Park Zoo and is optimistic about adding to the herd in the near future. Next steps also include implementing a design process for improvements to the elephant exhibit to build on the physical and behavioral health and social well-being of the animals. 

If you have questions or want to know more about what’s coming next, you may find helpful information including a Question and Answer list at our Elephant News page.

We are extremely grateful for your support and passion for elephants and Woodland Park Zoo. You play an important role in preserving elephants into the future through your ongoing support. Together we are making a better world for wildlife. Thank you.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Upcycled Wild Craft Contest

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Communications

As we countdown to Party for the Planet coming up April 5-13, it’s time to kick-off the earth-friendly event with a contest!

Turn trash into treasure and enter the Upcycled Wild Craft Contest. Photo by Ryan Hawk, craft by Sara Schaad/Woodland Park Zoo.

Transform trash into treasure for the zoo’s Upcycled Wild Craft Contest. Use non-recyclable items including bottle caps, old furniture or food packaging to make artful creations that reduce waste and look wild!

Contest entries will be judged in the following age categories:
  • Ages 5-8 
  • Ages 9-13 
  • Ages 14-18 
  • Ages 19 + up 

Entries will be accepted March 29 – April 11. Drop yours off at the zoo’s West Entrance with a completed entry form. All entries will be displayed in the zoo’s West Plaza and on Woodland Park Zoo’s Pinterest board.

Upcycling is a great way to keep items out of the landfill. Photo by Kirsten Pisto/Woodland Park Zoo. 

One winner will be selected in each age group and receive a Real Close Tour for two people and an upcycled item from the zoo’s Conservation Commerce. One of the four winners will be chosen as the overall winner and win an upgraded Conservation Commerce item.

Upcycling is just one way to keep trash out of the landfill and be a better steward for the planet. At Party for the Planet, every day is Earth Day as we explore more ways to take care of wildlife and wild places together. From April 5-13, join us for guided eco tours around the zoo and daily talks and programs spotlighting ways to protect the planet. On April 11, we'll host an e-cycling event to help keep toxic materials out of the enviornment. Get the full schedule and come party with us!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Road trip: four states, two lions

Posted by: Kirsten Pisto, Communications
Photos and video by Kirsten Pisto/Woodland Park Zoo

Traveling across the country with animals in tow is a regular experience for our dedicated zookeepers, but when curator Martin Ramirez offered me the chance to tag along and document the move of two African lions, I jumped at what for me was a once-in-a-lifetime road trip!

This map traces the 16-hour route we traveled this month to deliver maturing lionesses Busela and Nobuhle to Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City—all part of the Species Survival Plan conservation breeding program that will eventually pair them with two mates in their new home.

Long before the road trip ever began, keepers and vet staff worked closely with the animals to prepare them for the transition with crate training, diet prep and health checks planned for before, during and after the move. The animal care staff is dedicated to ensuring these trips are as quick and stress-free as possible for all passengers, which also means reaching out to zoos along the way in case assistance is needed.

Sometimes animals are flown or shipped, but because we were transferring two lions at the same time to a fairly close destination, we decided it was all about the moving truck.

Seriously, you say? Yep, we rented a moving truck that would comfortably fit two large crates and it is here that our journey begins...

Stop 1: Prep and Loading, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, WA.

Martin met me in the zoo’s parking lot with the moving truck at 5:30 p.m. on Monday night. I threw my duffle bag full of camera equipment, a zoo sweatshirt and a large supply of Cheetos into the follow-car (a white Ford Escape Hybrid). The follow-car’s job is to trail the moving truck, watch for any problems and provide support (and snacks) to the team. We even had walkie-talkies to chat between cars; it was super official.

We drove into the zoo to pick up both the lions and their keepers, Pam Cox and Jason Sorstokke (both having remarkably less luggage than me), who met us outside the feline house.

After a pep-talk and safety reminder from collection manager, Pat Owen, keepers Pam, Christine and Nikki went into the feline house to transfer the lions into their crates. Getting two 200-lb. cats to shift from their exhibit into their crates is not easy, but fortunately the keepers had been practicing the move and it certainly paid off. We waited patiently outside the exhibit while the keepers asked the lions into the crates. When the lions were secure in their travel crates we then had to lift them into the moving truck. Lanny Kittleson, warehouse lead and skillfully smooth fork-lift operator, hoisted the crates into the back of the truck and secured the crates into place.

Zookeeper Nikki does a double check on the lions’ well-being before we depart.

As I tried to peer into the crates in the setting sunlight I couldn't see much of anything and almost wondered if there were really any lions inside, but a low growl from one of the girls assured me that yes, all lions were aboard.

Keeper Christine made sure we had a plentiful supply of water and meat snacks for the lions’ trip. She also provided a large amount of their favorite food so that the keepers in Utah could slowly transition them to their new diet plan. Here she is talking about the diet prep for the trip.

Then, with some heartfelt goodbyes and bon voyages from their dedicated keepers, the lion sisters and their convoy were off on I-5 south!

Stop 2: Some light pawing and a check-stop, Battleground, WA.

As we rolled along the freeway all I could hear was the soothing sound of the interstate. Martin and I were in the follow-car while Pam and Jason led the way in the moving truck. We were almost to Portland when we heard one of the walkie talkies buzz and Pam’s voice ask “Lion check at the next rest stop?” “10-4” we replied.

The next rest stop happened to be right outside Battleground, WA. We pulled into a spot farthest from the restrooms and other travelers. Not that we had much company on a Monday night, but we didn’t want to draw any unneeded attention to a moving truck full of lions. Pam met us at the back of the truck and explained that she had heard some pretty loud pawing during the last few miles. We needed to check to be sure the lions were safe and secure before we continued on. Pam slowly lifted the door and we peered into the back with our flashlights—no lion problems! The lions were snug in their crates, but it was easy to see what the pawing noise was from. Busela had kicked out most of the wood chips from her crate onto the moving truck’s floor. She had been very busy redecorating her carriage. Other than a few scattered wood chips, there were no glitches with our passengers. Next stop, The Dalles!

Stop 3: Gas station surprise, The Dalles, OR. 

We sneaked along the starlit Columbia River into the town of The Dalles and needed to gas up before heading over Deadman Pass and the Blues. At the height of the Oregon Trail days, the Blues were a formidable mountain range on the way to Oregon City. The traverse is a little smoother today with I-80 gliding over the peak at 4,193 feet, but you wouldn’t want to get stuck on this steep, windy road.

The West 6th Street 76 welcomed us with a cheerful gas station attendant as only Oregon can. There is something so comforting about a gas station at night, a quick chat with the attendant, a respite from the road. A smiling, freckled young lady chatted us up as she filled the pump. We told her that we were from Woodland Park Zoo and that we had a very special delivery for Utah. As if on cue, one of the lions gave a nice little pound on the side of her crate, making the gas attendant a tad nervous. “What kind of special delivery?” she prodded. When we told her we were hauling two lions she nearly jumped back from the moving truck. “Seriously? That is so freaky… and really cool.” It is really cool, I thought, these young lions are ambassadors for their species and we are all part of this benchmark move in their species survival program. The attendant nervously listened to the side of the truck for any roaring, but the lionettes were pretty quiet. “Good luck”, she said, “you have the coolest job in the world!” I think we all felt that way as we headed for the Blues.

The view for the majority of the 16 hour drive looked like this. I was tempted to grab some photos of my napping cohorts, but I’ll be nice and not publish them here.

Stop 4: Watering hole, Pendelton, OR.

In the middle of the night, in the middle of our trip, in the middle of nowhere we stopped outside of Pendleton, Oregon to check on the girls and make sure they had enough water and a few midnight snacks. Pam climbed into the back of the moving truck and skillfully filled their water troughs. She also slipped them a few chicken strips and asked how they were doing. Pam is magic; she understands animals in a way I have come to truly appreciate. Remember when you were little and you read storybooks about zookeepers and their remarkable affinity for the animals they care for? Well, Pam is that kind of keeper. It’s a quality in zookeeping that is hard to define, but at the core it is kindness and devotion.

Please forgive this poor documentation of Martin checking on the lions; the photographer was extremely tired during this leg of the trip.

Stop 5: Watering hole II, Baker City, OR.

The humans needed caffeine and sugar, the vehicles needed gas. There’s nothing quite like Takis and gas station coffee to round out a road trip. I’m not condoning this sort of nutrition plan, but it was essential to our expedition. We each took turns going into the snack station since someone was always stationed outside to watch over the lions.

Stop 6: Lion breakfast at dawn, Nampa, ID.

The sun rose between Baker City and just outside Nampa where we stopped at a rest area once again to check up on the lions and give them a breakfast snack. Feeding the lions in the crates is a little difficult, but Pam managed to get the raw chicken strips into the crates without too much trouble. She offered each of the girls a few handfuls of meat through the slip in the crates, but they weren’t too interested in breakfast.

The beautiful sunrise as we headed east. You can see the taillights of the lion-mobile in the distance. 

Here you can see how Pam slips some chicken to each lion.

It was a beautiful spot for the lions’ breakfast.

Stop 7: The lions roar at dawn, Twin Falls, ID.

The humans stopped for a quick breakfast in Twin Falls, as well as some more coffee. The lions began to roar a bit back and forth, either because they wanted our breakfast or because they were ready to be in Utah. It’s a long drive and the girls did really well in their crates, but I’m sure they were ready to be there—we certainly were at that point!

Stop 8: Snowfall in Snowville, Snowville, UT.

It was snowing as we finally crossed the state line into Utah! (I didn’t catch a photo of the “Welcome to Utah” sign because apparently I had dosed off.) Here is a photo of the beautiful snow-capped Wasatch Mountains north of Salt Lake City. We were really excited to be at Hogle and we only had a few hours left!

The lion-mobile finally reaches the foothills of the Wasatch range!

Stop 9: One last pit-stop, Honeyville, Utah

Our last stop before our big arrival at Hogle Zoo was a quick check on the girls in Honeyville, Utah, just a half hour outside of Salt Lake City. We pulled into a gas station next to a sunny farm field. Pam and Martin both climbed into the truck to do a visual check on the lions. Both girls were lying down and seemed to be calm, a good temperament before their transition from the moving truck to their new space at Hogle. The sun was shining, the snow was just beginning to catch up with us and in a few more miles we would be unloading the lions at their new home!

Stop 10: Home, sweet, home, Hogle Zoo, Salt Lake City, UT.

Woohoo! We finally made it to Hogle Zoo! We were welcomed by about 40+ Hogle Zoo staff at their brand new African Savanna exhibit. Hogle had been anticipating our arrival, so the staff there were really thrilled to see us pull in and welcomed us with lots of cheering and smiling. Everyone was ready to help us unload the crates and get the girls settled into their dens. The snow was beginning to fall, a fitting nod to this ski capitol, as we unloaded our gear and prepped the crates for the move into the lion yard. First the crates were lifted from the truck with a forklift and placed closer to the lion yard. From there, the Hogle staff used manpower (and womanpower) to carefully shuffle the crates to the lions’ indoor space. After securing the crates to the outside wall, a keeper on the roof of the feline house lifted a cord to open the crate door which allowed the lions to exit their crates and enter their indoor space.

It took a few minutes for the girls to get up the courage to shift into the indoor area, but once they did they sniffed out their new digs and settled in. They were kept in separate enclosures during their first night, but after that the sisters were reunited with a lot of snuggling and neck rubbing. Keepers at Hogle tell us they are doing quite well in their new home!

Hogle Zoo is just now putting the finishing touches on their 4.5 acre African Savanna exhibit. Erica Hansen, communications coordinator, gave us a special sneak peek at the new space. You can see they are still working on a few elements of the exhibit design, but soon the grass will begin to seed and it’s going to be a great space for our girls to romp and play. They’ll have two watering holes, one of which can be heated or cooled depending on the weather. There are places to sit up high and look over the panorama featuring giraffes, zebra, ostrich and other small antelope, as well as cozy spots to nap.

When we finally had the moving truck cleaned up and ready to return I felt a little sense of elation. It was sort of the last step in this big move and I was definitely exhausted and ready for some sleep. Even though the trip went as smoothly as possible, it was a big move for these two lions and we all felt a sigh of relief when we were assured that they were settled into their new dens. I’ve always thought that being a zookeeper was quite possibly the coolest job in the world, and spending time with this dedicated crew proved it. The keepers on both ends of this move care for these animals with as much devotion and empathy as you can imagine. It’s this mushy stuff that is sometimes left out of our stories. As zoologists we like to focus on the hard science behind animal care, but I can tell you that all four of us had a few tears in our eyes as we left the lionesses with their new keepers. Like seeing a kiddo head to kindergarten, it was a bittersweet little moment.

For me, the most touching moment was seeing Pam hand off to the Hogle keepers the girls’ favorite enrichment toy, a football that Pam had given them as little cubs back in Seattle. Pam, Jason and Martin took one last peek into the lions’ new home. They were in good hands and it was time to make the long drive home.

Pam leaves a little good luck present for Busela and Nobuhle: their preferred football, a reminder of their keeper at Woodland Park Zoo. Here you can see Nobuhle peeking out from an indoor holding area. 

It’s hard to believe the time has come to see our four young lions move onto the next stage of their lives. Born in November 2012, brothers Pelo and Rudo and sisters Busela and Nobuhle are now nearly the size of their mother, Adia. Our lions are still young, but at a year+ they were ready to become independent and start their own adventures. Part of becoming a mature lion means having the chance to establish a family and the potential to have cubs of their own.

Nobuhle in a holding area behind-the-scenes at Hogle Zoo.

Busela in her holding area at Hogle Zoo. Photo courtesy of Hogle Zoo.

As we drove out of the zoo gates, this Fleetwood Mac song was playing on the radio and I thought it was an auspicious sign for our girls.

I couldn't help but smile and think of the good life our girls will have in Utah. I might be secondhand news to our lions, but after this adventure I will always think of them whenever I find myself road tripping.

If you happen to find yourself in Salt Lake City, make sure you stop by Hogle Zoo and say hello to the girls!

Though the cubs have now all gone, the lion story isn’t over. A new mate for Adia has just arrived here from El Paso Zoo, a handsome male named Xerxes. He is hanging out in standard quarantine right now and we’re gearing up for an introduction between the two very soon. The two are paired through the Species Survival Plan, and if they hit it off, we could have a whole new generation of cubs to fall in love with!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Jaguar cubs tear into 1st birthday treats

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham and Caileigh Robertson, Communications
Photos by: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo

Happy almost 1st birthday, Kuwan, Arizona and Inka! Though the official day is March 22, the jaguar cubs got an early treat this morning—birthday piñatas scented in curry and perfume.

Following the trail of the enticing scents, the cubs quickly spotted and went after the decorations. Almost immediately “Happy Birthday” became “Happ Birthday” when Kuwan took down the turtle piñata on the end.

Predator instincts kicked into full gear as the jaguars stalked, pounced on, and tore into their piñatas.

The cubs also smashed and rubbed against the perfumed “Birthday” letters, but spent most of their energy on destroying the turtles.

At nearly 1 year old, sisters Inka and Arizona, and their brother, Kuwan, are a lively trio. The young cats’ daily antics include pouncing, prowling and endless play, pausing only to re-energize with cat naps and hearty meals. 

Jaguars are naturally solitary and begin to separate from their mother and siblings as they mature. The three cubs currently live together in the zoo’s award-winning Jaguar Cove and transition behind the scenes when their mother, Nayla, rotates on exhibit independently. Dad Junior lives in an exhibit behind the scenes. 

As the cubs demonstrate more social independence, they will begin to separate from one another too. Woodland Park Zoo’s animal management staff is currently scouting new homes for the young cubs based on breeding recommendations from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP). As a conservation institution, Woodland Park Zoo collaborates with other accredited zoos through the SSP to ensure healthy generations of this threatened species into the future. Meanwhile, conservation research continues in the field through the zoo’s Jaguar Conservation Fund, which targets threats that affect wild jaguar populations.

Leave a birthday message for the triplets in the comments and we’ll add it to the birthday card we’re making for the keepers. Last week on Facebook you started sending us your favorite cub photos to include in the card—thanks and please keep ‘em coming!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Otter pups receive first check-up

Posted by: Caileigh Robertson, Communications

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Four new otter pups at Woodland Park Zoo received a clean bill of health today during their first, hands-on wellness exam. The Asian small-clawed otter pups—three females and one male—were born to 4-year-old mother Teratai and 8-year-old father Guntur on January 20.

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

The zoo’s newest additions underwent a thorough neonatal exam to check their ears, eyes, mouths and overall development. Each of the otter pups just barely tipped the scales at 1.2-1.5 pounds, a healthy size for their 8-week-old frames. Exam results indicate all four pups are growing healthily as expected.

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Since the pups' birth, the parents and four older brothers have all pitched in to build their den nest, provide support and, most recently, teach the pups to swim in a behind-the-scenes pool.

Video: Otter pup swim practice behind the scenes. Footage by Pam Cox, produced by Kirsten Pisto/Woodland Park Zoo. 

With behind-the-scenes swimming lessons under their belts (pelts?), the otter pups had their first chance to go outdoors into their full exhibit today. But their protective father kept them indoors! We'll try another practice introduction session and hopefully soon pups (and dad) will get comfortable out there in the Bamboo Forest Reserve.

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Keep in mind that viewing hours at the otter exhibit will be irregular during the introduction sessions. Once we have an official debut planned, we'll be sure to share!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Making green skies safer for raptors

Posted by: Bettina Woodford, Communications

Video produced by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.


A delicate spring dew has settled on the shrub steppe of the Columbia Basin. Raptors, migrating through the Pacific flyway from distant wintering grounds, have alighted here, driven by eons of instinct to breeding areas where a potential buffet of small mammals, such as ground squirrels and pocket gophers, awaits. Heeding the juveniles’ endless squawks, for several weeks dutiful parents will bring meat, day after day, for gaping beaks to tear into. The raptors’ main business here is to raise healthy young and ready them to fledge, egging the species on one season at a time. 

Fewer prey scurry about this landscape today, however. As ranches, farms, towns and paved roads have grown in number, more than 50% of previously undeveloped shrub-steppe habitat, a raptor haven, has disappeared. This hybrid environment makes survival harder for the large, long-lived birds at the top of the food chain. Now, a new kind of development has arrived: wind farms. More than 2,000 turbines spin out electricity in the basin landscape as Washington state looks to sustain growth and mitigate climate change by increasing reliance on green and renewable energy, a laudable goal. As they proliferate, so do concerns about losing breeding raptor populations. “We need to understand the cumulative impacts of wind energy projects on nesting raptors, including their potential displacement and collisions with the 100-150 foot-long turbine blades so we can better protect them,” says Jim Watson, a veteran wildlife research scientist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

To achieve that goal, Jim looks to Woodland Park Zoo for help. Each spring, raptor keepers Gretchen Albrecht, Susan Burchardt, Ros Bas-Fournier, Joanna Bojarski, and Jean Ragland migrate to the basin too, providing him expert knowledge and research skills. They are the heart of a 14-year collaboration with WDFW, a Woodland Park Zoo Living Northwest project called Raptor Ecology of the Shrub-Steppe. For the last three years, they have focused on the effects of wind power on ferruginous and Swainson’s hawks at high-density wind farm sites in south-central Washington and north-central Oregon. Zoo researchers closely monitor hawks’ use of nesting ranges, flight patterns, and interactions in turbine collision zones.

Bumpy travels

Slightly winded, raptor lead keeper Gretchen Albrecht edges up the branches of a juniper tree as the sun arms the air. She is confirming the status of a particular nest, one of several the keepers focus on to track whether ferruginous and Swainson’s hawks are returning to this range annually, or are being displaced by the turbines and moving on to safer territory. Peering from a safe distance, she spies two large eggs. It is a bittersweet find. Indeed, the hawk pair had returned to their range and was preparing to raise this season’s young, taking turns sitting on the eggs and feeding on a dead vole one of them had hunted nearby. But Gretchen and Jim already know that the father, a banded Swainson’s hawk in their study, has been killed. His right wing shattered by a spinning blade, he lay slumped several yards away between his nest and a nearby turbine. His mate has already abandoned the nest. She is unable to hatch two eggs, feed ravenous chicks until they fledge and feed herself. Not alone.

Male Swainson’s hawk #39425 and the turbine that eventually struck him. Photo by Jim Watson.

With such keen eyesight, why do hawks not see these giant fans in their workaday flight paths?  Gretchen explains that “hawks are predators. After a long migration, their job here is straightforward, driven by instinct: build nests, find food and defend territory in the home range.” Making sense of strange, new human-built hazards is a secondary priority. “As Jim sees it, imagine waking up every day with hungry kids to feed. A huge, dangerous blender is lodged between your bedroom and your kitchen. Your eyes scan the ground, locking in on food, so even with all your flying skills, eventually you’re going to bump into it.”

Raptor traps?

The few years since turbines began appearing in raptor country equate to about a millisecond in evolutionary terms. Whether raptors will learn, individually and as a species, to navigate them better is an open question. Through focal observations, the keepers collect data on specific birds’ range behaviors, recording flight type, duration of interaction with or near turbines, and wind and turbine speed. They seek to discern patterns and trends holistically on two levels. The landscape level looks at whether populations are displaced by the turbines, abandoning their breeding grounds for safer but often less suitable habitats. The interaction level looks at whether the hawks become habituated to the turbines, flying near or through them.  In nesting territories, the mean rate at which hawks encounter turbine collision zones, a 400-foot radius around the blades, is once every 76 minutes.

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

At 400 feet tall, a turbine rises to the same height at which hawks circle as they seek prey. The danger is in the blades’ rotational dynamics—slowing down, speeding up, stopping—especially at the outer tips. Even at a moderate revolution, those tips can exceed speeds of 150 miles per hour, creating whirls of air that can knock birds off balance, or suck them in, resulting in fatal strikes. In the U.S., estimates are that wind farms kill between 150,000 and 500,000 birds a year. Compared to the hundreds of millions of birds killed by vehicles, buildings’ glass windows and domestic cats annually, the number is relatively low. 

But wind farms are not just here to stay; they are here to multiply. According to researchers at MIT and the Santa Fe Institute, renewable energy patents now outpace patents for fossil fuels. That pace impacts birds and other wildlife. As with hawk #39425, “it’s hard not to have a visceral reaction to individual bird strikes,” says Jim. “But we really need to help wind companies and energy consumers grasp the potential population-level effects, particularly for endangered or threatened raptors. The more we understand their ranging habits and response behaviors to risk factors, the better we can sustain these valuable species over generations.” Preliminary results, to be released this year, suggest that these hawks continue to return to wind project areas to nest, although ferruginous hawks, more sensitive and in decline, are at greater risk of nest-site attrition. Their ranges span large, patchy networks of feeding areas across the basin, so their chances of interacting with turbines increase.

Keepers’ field work tools include Global Positioning Systems technology, telescopes, binoculars, photography, highly skilled eyesight and lots of patience. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Although only a few of the studied birds died from blade strikes, the population experienced considerable mortality from other human-related factors, such as poaching. Fine-scale analyses of flight patterns suggest that nesting hawks regularly pass through or around operational turbines on their territories, but may be learning to adjust their flight behaviors near turbines depending on wind speed. The study’s findings will improve state policy guidelines for safer turbine siting, operational regulations and bird-strike mitigation, and may even inform the industry’s research on blade design. While just about any human endeavor we undertake impacts the environment, green technology especially, through innovation and cooperation, can seek to reduce its impact on the habitat it occupies.

Safer skies

Back at the zoo’s Raptor Center, Gretchen wraps up a typical day. Feeder crickets chirp noisily in the background as she reflects on the field work stories she and the keepers tell curious zoo visitors during the popular flight programs. Children’s faces flush with awe and wonder as the birds cruise over the grassy knoll, showing off a magnificent portfolio of broad wings, strong talons and laser-sharp focus. Gretchen knows that the more people connect to the zoo’s field projects, the more conservation action they will take. Most visitors are shocked to learn that turbine blade tips can slice the air so fast, and are moved to learn how raptors are so deeply connected to the basin’s natural resources.

Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Even as development lurches onward, Gretchen believes it is not inevitable that viable habitat and raptors should disappear from the landscape. What is inevitable is our connection to it. “It’s such big, open country,” she recalls. “You feel small, but that’s good. You see how really connected you are to all of life.” Building from this simple fact, we can shift our paradigm from merely energy consumers to proactive stewards of it, mindful of the species with which we share the planet’s resources. Green technology can design smart, and then smarter, ways to co-exist with wildlife. The keepers’ field work is an important contribution to helping wind power companies, policy makers and all who admire a blue—or a green—sky  make choices that keep raptors aloft.

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Editor's Note: This article is adapted from a story that first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of MyZoo Magazine, Woodland Park Zoo's quarterly member magazine. Become a member today to begin your subscription.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Jaguar triplets about to turn one

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Communications

The big “1” is just around the corner for the jaguar cubs.

The adventurous cubs explore the exhibit. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

That’s right, Kuwan, Arizona and Inka turn 1 year old next week on March 22. A lot has happened for these cubs in just one year, like:

Babies’ first day outside

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Babies’ first swim

Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Babies’ first snowman

Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

They may still be little ones in our hearts, but the truth is, we’re not dealing with babies anymore. Looking to the natural history of the jaguar, by one year of age cubs are typically ready to leave their mom. They may stay with their siblings for a time as they mature, and then ultimately they move on to a solitary lifestyle.

Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Providing the best care for growing animals means looking for clues to know when they are ready for natural next steps. Keepers have been observing the jaguars closely and we have seen in recent weeks that not only are the cubs fully independent of mom, but mom is clearly ready for some quality alone time!

Nayla is ready for some quality alone time. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

That means it’s time to readjust their living arrangements to give them the social independence they need. We have restructured their grouping so now mom rotates on exhibit independently, alternating with the young trio who rotate on exhibit together. Dad Junior is living in an outdoor exhibit behind the scenes for now while we make these transitions.

In the long-term, the cubs will mature into solitary adults and need to move on from each other as well.  The work has already begun to identify new zoo homes for each of the young jaguars. As a conservation zoo, we collaborate with other accredited zoos through an Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ (AZA) program called the Species Survival Plan that allows us to work together to save species at the population level while planning for the lives of each animal at the individual level. The conservation work continues in the field through our Jaguar Conservation Fund, which supports research and targets threats that put pressure on wild jaguar populations.

The male cub, Kuwan, will be the first to move out on his own, heading off to Zoo de Granby, Quebec this summer.  New homes will also be identified for the female cubs in the near future. With these cooperative transfers to other AZA-accredited zoos, each cub will have the chance to mature and participate in the Species Survival Plan breeding program, ensuring healthy generations of this threatened species into the future.

Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

We've all treasured the chance to see the cubs playing together and bonding with mom for the first year of their lives. Now, we get to see them mature and become truly independent. But that won’t stop us from celebrating one final first—babies’ first birthday! Look for the jaguar cubs to enjoy a special birthday treat on Fri., Mar. 21 at 10:00 a.m. Join us then and stay tuned here for photos from their party!