One of the things I love the most about working with wildlife is that there is always something new to learn. And one of the things I love most about working for San Diego Zoo Global is that we are consistently encouraged to learn more and supported in growing professionally. I am currently making the most of an awesome learning opportunity afforded to me by the Zoo: A three-month exchange with an Australian keeper.
I just finished my first month at the native-animal focused property of Zoos Victoria, Healesville Sanctuary and am awed and humbled by the things I have learned and experienced so far. I started my time here on the bird team, cleverly called ‘Flighting Extinction’. In San Diego, I am in the mammal department, so working with birds was a bit of a leap for me, but the keepers here are fantastic at what they do and great teachers!
The first round that I was trained on was working with the critically endangered helmeted honeyeaters (pictured above), affectionately known to the staff as ‘he-hos’. Along with a number of stakeholders, the Sanctuary has been working with this highly endangered bird species to breed and release them for several decades now. Being able to not only see these amazing animals but to actually be involved in their daily care as well as preparations for breeding season was a real treat. One of the things I most enjoyed was seeing all the care and planning that goes into prepping groups of birds for release. The staff—along with a doctoral candidate—were working to increase survival rates by making sure the birds had the necessary predator awareness and avoidance skills before they were released to the wild.
I also got to help with the preparations for orange-bellied parrot breeding season. Orange-bellied parrots are also critically endangered, with less than 50 birds left in the wild! The Sanctuary has committed to saving them from extinction too…not to mention they are incredibly cute!
Another highlight from my time with the bird team was working with a 27-year-old male lyrebird named Nova. Lyrebirds are the best mimics in the entire bird kingdom and can copy just about any sound they hear. In fact, if you look for lyrebird video on YouTube, chances are you’ll see Nova himself! He is such a unique and outgoing fellow, I found myself completely smitten.
I was also fortunate to help re-open an entire exhibit. The wetlands aviary had been under construction for around 18 months in an effort to make it more comfortable for its inhabitants and to allow them greater ability to display natural behaviors. Releasing the birds back into their newly renovated home and watching them enjoy their space was a really fulfilling moment for everyone involved!
I have just started on a new team and am busy learning about a whole new set of animals—many of which I have never even heard of before! So it’s back to the books for me, and I’m loving every moment learning about all these fascinating native Australian species.
Ashley Roberts is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.