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Tuesday, February 9

Hello! My name is Taylor, and I’m the newest addition to the Bird Team here at Zoo Atlanta. I’ve worked with animals for several years as a researcher, veterinary nurse and educator—but working with birds as a keeper has its own unique challenges. As a newbie, I’ve been trying to learn as much as possible about all 450 birds here at the Zoo! Being a great observer is a primary skill for anyone who works with animals. How well you know an animal species or an individual animal directly affects your ability to be an effective caretaker.
Within a multi-species exhibit, observation skills are especially important. The Living Treehouse is home to about 15 species of birds, all with their own unique behaviors. Each morning, we start our day by checking on everyone, assessing the health of each bird and noting anything unusual or concerning. In order to know what, exactly, is unusual for a particular species or bird, I need to spend time watching and observing them every day. For example, our trio of white-crested laughing thrushes tend to like to stick together, so if one bird is by herself one day, it’s something to be aware of. To complicate things, unusual behaviors in one species may be quite normal in another species. Green woodhoopoes love to hang upside down and explore new crevices, and it’s delightful, not alarming, to see a woodhoopoe dangling off of a branch to investigate new-grown leaves. That same behavior in a white-cheeked turaco, on the other hand, would be very troubling.
Some behavioral observations are subtler, like where in the habitat different individuals like to spend their time. You will almost always find at least one speckled pigeon perched above you as you enter the boardwalk in The Living Treehouse. Our superb starlings love to spend time high the tree at the center of the exhibit. The white-faced whistling ducks are obviously partial to the pond, but they also love to follow keepers into the kitchen for their morning snack and hang out while diets are being prepared. All these subtle notes contribute to the greater understanding of each individual animal in a collection. The best way to get to know an animal is to spend time watching it.
Being a good observer isn’t just a useful skill for keepers! You can learn a lot as an amateur naturalist by simply using the tools you already have to observe an animal. Next time you visit us, spend some quality time watching your favorite animal in their habitat. Take note of what behaviors you see, how often you see them, if there are any patterns you can distinguish, and in what context they occur. For example, do you see Gumby, our male southern ground hornbill, parading around with a piece of mulch every time he sees a new visitor stop by his habitat?
The same techniques can be used in your own backyard. How many birds visit a certain tree by your house? Can you tell what species they are? Is there a certain time of day or year that you see a particular species? Do different species tend to perch in different parts of the tree? Everything we know about animals started with someone making a simple observation. Whether you want to be a zookeeper someday, or whether you just want to know a little more about the ecosystem in your own backyard, practicing being a good observer will be rewarding. So get out there and start watching!
Taylor Rubin
Keeper I, Birds

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl