March 19, 2013
Last week, National Zoo officials spotted several black-crowned night herons roaming the property. Within two weeks, they expect to see hundreds more because the birds are the one species that come and go as they please at the Zoo. The black and white birds have been nesting there since 1889, before the Zoo was founded, and every year around mid-March, they fly in and visit until around mid-September.
Though the population is doing fine worldwide, in the mid-Atlantic region the status of the birds is threatened due to habitat loss. According to biologist Sara Hallager, the big draw that keeps the birds coming back to the Zoo year after year might be the plentiful free food and lush grounds.
At first, the breeding birds competed with the Zoo’s own collection of animals at the Bird House, she says. But then staff began feeding the herons separately. Now, with daily 2 p.m. feedings, the visiting animals have actually become a bit of an attraction when they get their handouts out behind the Bird House.
The first scouts typically arrive in mid-March, returning with the group two weeks later. Around the Bird House, they can be seen building nests for the next generation. One month later, the chicks are born. The group stays through mid-September and disappear suddenly just before the chill in the Fall. They are believed to winter in southeastern states or even the Caribbean.
Other than the occasional false alarm when a visitor thinks that that perhaps one of the Zoo’s birds has escaped, the annual visit is a welcomed sight–the Zoo’s very own sign of spring on its way.
March 15, 2013
Shanti the elephant has been having the time of her life. In 2010, the National Zoo opened the first phase of Elephant Trails, a major renovation of its elephant habitat, and zookeepers allowed her to be the first to play in her home’s expanded yards. She was ecstatic. Now, the Zoo is set to open a new Elephant Community Center on Saturday, March 23, and Shanti again got a sneak preview.
“Shanti just loved every single moment of it,” says elephant manager Marie Galloway. “She came in and she explored every single nook and cranny.”
The Elephant Community Center is the last major addition to the Zoo’s seven-year, $56 million renovation project, which vastly expands the roaming space, and also adds a barn and an exercise and research outpost for the Zoo’s three Asian elephants. (The exhibit now spans 8,943 square meters.) Inside the community center, elephants socialize and are cared for with state-of-the-art facilities, including a heated, sand-covered floor and a wading pool with a shower that can be activated by the elephants themselves. Interactive exhibits in the center showcase the Zoo’s research and explain the elephant’s physical traits, cognitive abilities and behaviors.
“One of our major goals of this project is to create an environment where elephants can live as a more natural social unit,” Galloway explains. “That means creating a multi-generational related herd of elephants, and comfortable space for more independent males to live here as well. We want to grow a family, not just open up an exhibit and fill it with elephants.”
Versatility is key to encouraging this socialization, Galloway says. The new environment is customizable and varied, with doors that open and close to modify spaces and exits to outdoor areas from every indoor facility. The design aims to provide elephants with as many options as possible to meet their social needs; they can get out of each other’s sight, be in sight of each other, but not in each other’s space, or cuddle up close if they are elephant best friends.
“You have to treat every single one of them as an individual. We want to be able to make everybody comfortable no matter what their social preferences are,” Galloway says.
Ultimately, she hopes that more comfortable elephants will give Zoo visitors a better elephant-watching experience. Visitors will need to spend more time tracking down the elephants in their expanded environment, but Galloway thinks what they find will be worth the extra effort. “If the elephants are enjoying themselves, the people are enjoying themselves,” she says.
Enjoyment, though, she stresses, is not the exhibit’s only end. The National Zoo is regarded as a leader in elephant research, particularly on Asian elephants, which are both less studied and far more endangered than their African relatives. (Around 30,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants are alive today, compared to around 400,000 African ones.) Elephant Trails carries a strong message about the problems elephants face and what visitors can do to protect them. While the Zoo’s staff has always made an effort to convey this message, Galloway says, the new community center uses its displays to call visitors to action: “You can get that message without seeing a single person or elephant.”
But don’t miss seeing the elephants! Here are more pictures of them:
March 6, 2013
Looking for something to do today, while the snowy weather conditions persist? The Smithsonian museums will be open for business today. But the National Zoo will be closed Wednesday, March 6, 2013.
Plan your visit, using our convenient Tours app, a free download is available here.
February 21, 2013
The National Zoo‘s pair of eight-week-old Andean bear cubs received a clean bill of health yesterday, February 20, after a thorough physical exam. The cubs had already marked a significant milestone for the species when they made it to seven days–something only one other captive litter in the country had achieved since 2005 and that was the National Zoo’s own 2010 litter, Chaska and Bernardo.
Weighing in at 10.1 and 9.2 pounds, the two cubs will stay with their mother Billie Jean until their public debut later this spring, likely in early May. In the meantime, they got a full examination as well as some routine vaccinations. Though it’s still difficult to ascertain the sex of each at this point, caretakers think it’s a brother and sister duo.
Great cats and bear keeper Craig Saffoe was part of the 14-person team that helped with the checkup. Even though the cubs are small, he says, they can still be a handful, squirming and sqwuaking. “It was insanely loud in there,” says Saffoe, “one of our vets was wearing earplugs.”
“They’ve seen their mother and each other and that’s it, so it kind of reminds me of what it must be like for people who say that they’ve been abducted by aliens,” says Saffoe. Nonetheless, the checkup went smoothly.
Staff (and the world) will continue to watch the cubs interact with their mother via the Cub Cam, gathering useful breeding information for other facilities hoping to replicate the Zoo’s success.
Though the two cubs have yet to be named (a process that falls to the Zoo’s director to oversee), Saffoe says he’s taken to referring to them as “broken mask” and “full mask” for their distinct facial markings. “Their father [Nikki] was, of course, euthanized last year due to cancer so there’s a bit of a hope we’ll be able to commemorate him,” he adds.
As for the cub cuteness competition pitting pandas against Andean cubs, Saffoe says it isn’t even close. “I’m biased, man. I think there is no bear on the planet cuter than an Andean bear, especially when you get to see them face to face.” He says, “they’ve got the perfect little face, they’ve got these neat little markings.” But Saffoe concedes the point that, “there aren’t too many cubs that aren’t cute.”
February 13, 2013
This Valentine’s Day, take a cue from our furry friends and bond with the best of them. The National Zoo is spreading the love this year with their very own “Critter Cupids,” custom cards whose proceeds go to the wonderful animals that inspired them.
We got the inside scoop from caretakers and Zoo officials about all the many ways animals say, Happy Valentine’s Day.
Sea lions, Rebecca Miller: “Our sea lions often greet each other by touching noses or blowing on each other. They greet us this way too sometimes when we go out to feed or train.”
“They are also very playful with each other and will play tag or tug of war with objects that we give them. They have no real concept of personal space, often piling on top of each other when they sleep and using each other’s bodies as pillows.”
“Our two older unrelated females, Summer and Calli, were rescued as pups within a few days of each other and were raised together. They used to suck on each other’s ear flaps when they were younger–not so much anymore.”
“And they always prefer to be together. They’ll get antsy and easily stressed if separated from each other for long amounts of time.”
Giant pandas, Juan Rodriguez: “That shot of Tian Tian and Mei Xiang is the initial stages of the mating season. It usually ends with them rolling around and then their uncoordinated mating attempt (LOL).”
Great cats, Craig Saffoe: “Big cats (and small ones too) will head-rub with each other. To us it looks like “awwww, they’re in love,” in reality it is likely a way to express hormones as they have scent glands above their eyes. Looks cute though.”
Otters, Devin Murphy, Zoo communications team: “Our otters are very playful and they do everything together. When they run around their habitat it looks like one giant moving ball of fur. You can also hear them vocalize if you listen closely.”
Red pandas, Stacey Tabellario: “Red panda breeding season in the northern hemisphere is right around Valentine’s day. In fact, in 2011 we saw breeding ON Valentine’s day that produced two female cubs who are now grown and living at other zoos.”
“During breeding season, we see an increase in play and hear a vocalization called twittering. These red panda wrestling matches and soft high pitched sounds are how the red pandas find each other and pair up for breeding.”