Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bird Brains

I snapped this picture of a great egret when we spent the day at Sea World in Orlando during our  recent vacation.  Isn't he just gorgeous?

I wish I could have captured how the sweep of tail feathers in the back sort of billowed in the breeze that day, because it was really lovely as it shone snowy white in the sunlight.

I always confuse these beautiful birds with their smaller counterparts, the snowy egrets, no matter how many times I look them up and no matter how bright yellow their bills are compared to the darker color of a snowy egret's bill.  They are my birding faux pas every single time I try to identify one on the fly, what can I say?

In any case, these birds have got a whole routine down pat at Sea World.  You can tell when it is about to be feeding time, because suddenly snowy and great egrets begin to creep around on the rocks and ledges surrounding whatever tank is about to receive some glorious fish bits.

They also appeared to be super smart.

These birds know where every feeding bin is located.  They watch for pail placement, and then patiently wait for the trainer to step away from the pail to heave in a handful to the tank, and see a bird sidle up, creeping bit by bit in as nonchalant a fashion as they can muster to get to the fish bin and delicately pull out a fish, running away with their prize flopping in their beak.

I saw them do it over and over again, including when we were feeding the dolphins.  You can see the bird that picked our group as easy targets for free fish in the photo below:

Why yes, that trainer does have a bucket of fish to her lefthand side, why do you ask?

And yes indeed, that crafty snowy egret on The Peanut's right did hop on down and avail herself of a free meal while we were busy interacting with the enchanting dolphins in the tank.  I never even noticed the egret, honestly, because I was so caught up in how much The Peanut was enjoying the dolphins and in enjoying the moment myself, but Mr. ReddHedd watched him and thought he was an absolute hoot.

There were egrets that showed up just as the dolphin show, Blue Horizons, began  and they knew exactly where the fish bins were placed and about when they'd be opened and potentially ripe for the picking.

One of the trainers told me that they used to use bins with magnetic closures on them, and that the birds figured out how to open them on their own.  The birds would just walk over to the bin, tap the claps with their beak and...voila!...the magical fish bin would open and reveal its treasure.  I was laughing so hard, because I can completely picture that.

They had to switch bins so that there was a manual open and close to keep the birds from constantly stealing the food for the animals.  They weigh out portions for each, individual animal in any given enclosure to make sure they are getting appropriate nutrition every day, and the birds were taking out enough fish that it started worrying the trainers that they might be shorting one or two animals depending on which bin got targeted in any given day by ravenous, sneaky birdies.


Here are some more egrets surrounding the seal area, hanging out on the rocks with a Pacific harbor seal, soaking in the sun just before feeding time:

So cute,  right? 

Thought everyone would get a kick out of the birds.  I found them absolutely hilarious, and really enjoyed watching how they were, in some ways, training the people as much as the people were trying to outwit the birds.  Such a hoot!

(All photos by Christy Hardin Smith.)

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