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Inside the Nest

An insiderís view of opening the Stellerís Sea-eagles Aviary

First steps

We are so excited to announce the opening of our new Stellerís Sea-eagle Aviary in Glacier Run. If you have visited the Zoo during the past couple of months, you may have noticed that we have had limited entry into the exhibit and that only some of the birds that will ultimately inhabit the aviary have been on display. You no doubt have questions. We thought we would provide you with some insider information to explain what happens after construction is complete and how the animals are introduced to their new home.

Once an exhibit is fundamentally complete, there are always tweaks to various operational elements like water features, pipes, fencing, animal holding areas, doors, surfaces and so on. Just as you would do with a home you are building, we have to review, test and adjust things to make sure all the features are working the way we want them to.  Because all of the new exhibits at the Louisville Zoo tend to incorporate new design elements and innovations, we often have more than the average number of Items that need to be adjusted on what we call our final ďpunch list.Ē Only when the exhibit is deemed complete and safe do we begin introducing animals into it, and that can be a slow calculated process, particularly with some species.

Our new aviary will eventually feature a variety of bird species including two very rare Stellerís Sea-eagles, one azure-winged magpie (for now), four mandarin ducks and two red-breasted geese.  Because the safety and well-being of these precious animals is of the utmost importance, we take our time letting them acclimate to the new environment and to each other. Successful adjustment is definitely not an overnight process. You may recall how we helped Qannik, our rescued Alaskan polar bear cub, slowly adjust to her new home by gradually uncovering the exhibit windows to allow her to get used to glass and to all the guests behind the glass. Bird introductions are handled a little differently, but the goal is the same.

Each species in the aviary is unique and has a specific introduction plan. The first of the four species that Bird Curator Gary Michael introduced into the aviary was the mandarin ducks. This generally calm and low key species was introduced directly to the pond and will provide a stabilizing effect for the other introductions.

The azure-winged magpie was introduced next. Michaelís did so by first creating a safe space for the magpie in the holding pen that is adjacent to the large aviary, then after several weeks he opened the door into the avairy. Michael monitored the magpie and was impressed with its quick and thorough exploration of the exhibit. Within 30 minutes the bird had mastered its magpie space in the aviary; within hours it was flying in the sea-eaglesí space and had made itself comfortable in their nest 40 feet in the air. By the dayís end, the magpie headed back to its introduction pen for a snack. The magpie ďhung outĒ with the mandarin ducks that first day. During those weeks in the pen, keepers didnít handle the mapgie and were trying to be as unintrusive as possible so the bird felt at ease in its new space. Zookeepers monitored the magpieís routine and learned her patterns and eating habits. This information will be helpful when our zookeepers need to guide her off exhibit. Modern animal care uses operant conditioning to move animals from one area to another and food is often the most successful motivator. In this case, the zookeepers used the same red bowl the magpie was accustomed to eating from, placed it in the catch blind and waited a bit longer than normal to feed her so she would be hungry. In less than two minutes, the zookeepers were able to successfully move her to a new location. This is a smart bird!

Next up we will tell you how we introduced the two magnificent Stellerís Sea-eagles.

The Stellerís Sea-eagles are introduced

So how did we manage the Stellerís Sea-eaglesí introduction? As Michael explained, introducing the sea-eagles to their new home was handled slowly and carefully. First, the Stellerís Sea-eagles were moved to a holding/introductory yard where they were fed at the same time each day to get them conditioned to finding their food. You may wonder why food is not just tossed into the larger aviary for them to find like they would in the wild. Occasionally, it is necessary to get the sea-eagles and the other birds in the aviary to come inside for a medical procedure or health exam or into a safe holding area during a storm. That important process of relocation goes much more smoothly if the birds are trained to find their food in the holding yard. These very large raptors are not physically handled by the keepers so must be trained to respond on their own. The sea-eagles eat once a day with the main staple of their diet being dead lab-raised adult rats

Once the zookeepers determined that the sea-eagles were well-adapted to the holding yard, the magpie was temporarily removed and the eagles were introduced to the main aviary to begin exploring and acclimating to the larger exhibit space. They have a 50 foot tall artificial pine tree with a nest at the top and strategically place perches from which they can observe keepers, future aviary inhabitants and Zoo guests. Steel mesh separates the sea-eagles from guests and some of the other birds. A nest-cam will allow guests to unobstrusviely watch the eagles raise any young that are hatched. Their new home also has water features and other elements that they must get used to. Initially the eagles were in the aviary for a few hours a day; this will be increased as they become more familiar with the new space.

The final piece - the red-breasted geese and YOU!

The red-breasted geese are soon-to-be introduced once the sea-eagles and the others are in a routine. To accomplish a successful introduction, Michaelís staff will close the exhibit for one day at least to get the geese into the aviary. Just like the mandarin ducks the geese will be directly introduced to the pond and surrounding areas. The geese are prone to running around and need to learn the topography of the exhibit. They are considered endangered and therefore breeding will be an important consideration over time. Maintaining two pair of geese gives us the chance to see how the geese interact in different spaces so we can help create an optimum breeding environment for them. Most likely you will see one pair on exhibit at a time.

The new aviary is designed to create the illusion that you Ė our guests Ė are in with the Stellerís Sea-eagles. The landscape, the hardscape and the roving magpie all lend themselves to this immersive experience.

The walk-in aviary is currently open daily, but hours may vary based on the needs of the birds and to accommodate future introductions. The sea-eagles are in the aviary now and YOU Ė our guests - play a role in their acclimation too. Your presence helps the eagles get used to the aviary so stop by and enjoy our newest exhibit. The eagles take flight occasionally so be prepared with your cameras when you enter. Catching the birds in flight with their impressive wingspans of up to eight feet is an amazing sight and a great photo opp!


You may have additional questions upon your visit:

Q. Why are there some holes in the mesh?

A.You will see three small square holes in the mesh that allows the magpie to fly freely through the entire aviary. Zookeepers assure us that the magpies are bright and agile, not a typical food source for the eagles and unlikely to be in harm. So please donít worry. Bird keepers tell us that based on their natural history the Sea-eagles donít hunt small passerines (small songbird type of birds and the same order the magpie is in). Stellerís sea-eagles can and will scavenge for dead animals in the wild.

Q. What is the video screen showing?

A. The video is directed at the nest in the hopes that we will have some Sea-eagleeggs at some point and that you will be able to observe the hatchlings?