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Do you hear what I hear?

Tamlyn Sapp, Waterfowl Animal Keeper
Photos by Tamlyn Sapp, Woodland Park Zoo unless otherwise noted

Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

‘Tis the season for holiday music to ring, but the ears of many zoo guests are left ringing after visiting the most raucous birds at the zoo—the southern screamers and the Chilean flamingos! This flamboyant group of South American birds often showcase their choral talents in harmony. But what is all this ruckus really about? Let me introduce you to my jolly friends and I will explain why they have so much to say and what it all means!

Southern screamers (Chauna torquata) are native to South American grassy marshes and agricultural lands, spanning Bolivia to Argentina. These birds can be domesticated and are known to be good guard animals due to their deafening “oh-WOOOW” screechy bark, which can be heard up to a mile away! When threatened, screamers will let out a low drumming warning rumble from their chest, and in times of contentment they often softly chatter their beaks to one another. Our Southern screamer family – Mork, Mindy, and their one-year-old daughter Bernie, will often vocalize as a family when a noisy aircraft flies over. Mork and Mindy will also duet their double trumpet call as a form of courtship. Bernie will be moving to another zoo soon, so come visit the family before she leaves.

White-faced whistling ducks (Dendrocygna viduata) can be found in parts of South America and Africa, inhabiting freshwater marshes. Their distinct trisyllabic whistle differs between males and females. Male vocalizations are a longer “swee-swee-swoo” whereas female vocalizations are a sharper “sweet-sitsoo.” They will also make longer “wheeee” calls - sharper when alarmed and softer when showing affection. These birds often congregate in large colonies with thousands of individuals and will form small, bonded groups that share in nesting responsibilities, so the differences in these vocalizations is very helpful for communicating to one another. Our bachelorette group of female White-faced whistling ducks—Bean, Blue, Pearl, and Dixie—have formed their own bonded “sister-hood” with each other, but also enjoy the company of their keepers. You can usually hear their whistles of excitement resound through the exhibit when they see their favorite keeper approaching.

Chiloe wigeons (Mareca sibilatrix) are native to Argentina and Chile, living in lakes and lagoons. These birds form long-term, monogamous pair bonds and share a range of vocalizations as a part of their relationship with each other, and with their offspring. Earlier this year, our male Chiloe wigeon, Charlie, lost his mate due to age-related illness. However, a new female, Angel, has very recently been welcomed with exuberant “rakoos” from Charlie! There have been a plethora of chittering and honking vocalizations, day and night, accompanied by a lot of head bobbing, suggesting they are hitting it off quite nicely.

Orinoco geese (Oressochen jubatus) can be found near forested rivers and wetland areas of Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. Technically these birds are in the shelduck family, which is an intermediate between ducks and geese. They almost exclusively nest in tree cavities, an uncommon behavior seen in true geese. These birds use a variety of vocalizations for courtship and territorial displays. Males utter a “zhreeee” whistle followed by a “hack” sound, and females respond with a nasal “grump-grump-grump” cackle. Our pair, Hansel and Gretel, recently moved here from Florida, and have joined the dynamic screamers. You can often see them sitting on the edge of the pool or engaged in a courtship display, so stop by and welcome them to the PNW.

Chilean flamingos (Phoenicopterus chilensis), as their name implies, are native to Chile, but also span across Patagonia into Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Peru. They breed in saline lakes of the Andes Mountain range and winter along the Pacific Ocean coastline. These birds live in very large flocks and are commonly heard “kucking” as a group but will also utter “ka-han” honks to one another. Our 43 Chilean flamingos are often heard vocalizing to one another during breeding season, or if their personal space bubble is infringed upon by another flock member. Although this group does not share an exhibit with the screamers and their friends, you can always hear them right on the other side of the fence.

Each of these species of birds can be distinguished by a distinct vocalization, but the motivation behind their communication is often aligned, determined by themes of courtship, territory, or affection. Celebrate this holiday season with a visit to Woodland Park Zoo, and see if you can hear what I hear!