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Early Birds Get the Worms

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Animal Updates | Birds | Enrichment

Tuesday, February 04, 2014


Early Birds Get the Worms
Black-bellied plover investigating a foraging enrichment.  | Dominique Richardson

Because of the variety of animals in some exhibits, occasionally we make enrichment items that are intended just for specific animals. Some enrichments might not entice or be able to be used by animals other than the species they were intended for. I built a feeding enrichment for the foraging shorebirds in our Shorebird Sanctuary exhibit. While we have quite a variety of birds, including stilts, plovers, ducks and egrets, I had built the foraging enrichment specifically for the dowitcher and plovers. These shorebirds have long thin beaks intended to pull invertebrates out of the soil or sand. My enrichment was designed to encourage their natural foraging behavior.

I took a piece of drift wood, cleaned it thoroughly, and drilled deep holes into it. In the holes I hid wax worms and meal, part of the birds’ diet. I placed it in the middle of the exhibit and watched to see what would happen. I wasn’t really sure how the birds would respond, as they can be very skittish. It took the birds a little time to get used to it. At first most of the birds kept their distance: Some of the small plovers came to investigate, then nervously darted away. Only a few birds, the Black-Bellied Plover, dowitcher, and a Black-Necked Stilt, foraged from the device on the first introduction.

I decided to introduce the device a second time to give the birds (and my enrichment device) another chance. The birds seemed to have learned very quickly that there was food in the driftwood. The second time the driftwood was put into their exhibit the Black-Bellied Plover came to forage right away. Soon after, the dowitcher and stilts and even the nervous little birds came up to eat. They made quick work of the worms.

Late to the party, a group of ducks climbed up out of the water and began pecking at the wood, trying to pull worms from the tiny, deep holes with their ill-suited flat beaks. Although the enrichment wasn’t intended for them, they didn’t want to be left out. Unfortunately, by this time there were no worms left and I decided to remove the driftwood, even as the late-coming ducks eagerly pecked at the holes, to keep them from getting discouraged by the lack of food. I guess the early birds really do get the worms.

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