HEALTH CARE FOR THE AQUARIUM’S FEATHERED RESIDENTS: A BIRD’S-EYE VIEW

Health care for an Oystercatcher
Animal Care Specialist Sara Perry (left) assists Senior Veterinarian Dr. Caitlin Hadfield (right) with a health check on a black oystercatcher.

 

If you’ve been following along with our weekly themes, you already know that the marine mammals at the Aquarium are trained to voluntarily participate in their own health care—just like you voluntarily participate in yours when you open your mouth to say “ahhh” or step on the scale at the doctor’s office.

Turns out the Aquarium’s birds participate in their own care as well—even if that’s not through more skilled training like the marine mammals. How do they do it? Simply by eating!

“Staff can closely monitor food consumption to help assess health care,” says Animal Care Specialist Sara Perry. “We count how many and what type of fish or bug each bird eats during the day. For the alcids, when each bird comes over to eat we can also deliver specific vitamins or necessary medications in a fish. Overall behavior during a feeding can also tell us a lot about the wellness of the bird.”

“Staff also have to be much more creative and patient in feeding birds,” Sara adds. “They’re not like a sea otter that usually eat anything at any time, or a seal that just gulps fish down. Ask any of our staff, feeding the birds takes finesse!,” she laughs. “You've got to know each bird, their behavior and their preferences for the time of year, and then apply all that to a group setting with one feeder.”

Caring for birds requires even more expertise as they get older—but understanding the aging process in birds can be difficult. “Their eyes and feathers don’t change as they age, the way that eyes and fur do on mammals, so we look even more closely at food intake and rely on the expertise of staff and volunteers who have worked, in some cases for many years, with them,” says Aquarium Director of Life Sciences Grant Abel.

Sara Perry definitely fills that bill, if you’ll pardon the pun. She joined our Bird and Mammal team in 2010 as a temporary staff member, then came fully on board in 2012. She’s now known internally as the “bird lead.”

When we’re open to the public, Sara enjoys helping visitors connect with our mission through the birds in our care. This is a good time to note that all of the birds (and mammals) that make their homes at the Seattle Aquarium fall into one of two categories: they were either born at a zoo or aquarium or have been deemed non-releasable according to the guidelines established by government agencies and policies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Migratory Bird Act. All but one of the Seattle Aquarium’s six shorebirds are rehabilitated individuals, and two birds have been housed here since 1992.

These are facts that Sara takes pride in sharing with our visitors when we’re open to the public—and hopes to be sharing again soon. “I love that all of the birds, just like the rest of the animals at the Aquarium, are part of a bigger picture,” she says. “It sends a strong conservation message, and that’s what we’re all about.”

Of course, we’re currently closed, so Sara’s time at the Aquarium is devoted to animal care—and a lot more. Like other members of our animal care team, Sara also preps food, cleans exhibits, monitors the health of the animals in her care and (in the few moments she has to sit at a computer) writes records, creates reports, and provides information for blog posts like this.

Sara has a significant added responsibility as well: she’s the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA’s) Regional Studbook keeper and Species Survival Plan® coordinator for tufted puffins, horned puffins and common murres.

Tufted puffin chick
Tufted puffin chick

 

What do these designations mean and what responsibilities do they entail? According to the AZA website:

  • An AZA Regional Studbook dynamically documents the pedigree and entire demographic history of each individual in a population of species—they’re invaluable tools that track each individual animal care for in AZA-accredited institutions.
  • An AZA Species Survival Plan (SSP) Program strives to manage and conserve a select and typically threatened or endangered species population with the cooperation of AZA-accredited institutions. SSP Programs develop a Breeding and Transfer Plan that identifies population management goals and recommendations to ensure the sustainability of a healthy, genetically diverse, and demographically varied population.

Which means, in a nutshell, that Sara is responsible for helping facilitate the management and tracking of not one but three distinct bird species under human care at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums. “It’s all in the name of taking the best possible care of the Aquarium’s birds and those at other AZA-accredited institutions,” she says. Look for Sara at our Birds & Shores exhibit after we reopen to the public!

 

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