Where Do Animals Go In The Winter?

Winter, in all of its frozen glory, is upon us. Since most of our animals live outside, we get a lot of questions about where our animals live during the off-season. It’s different for every animal, but the basic answer is the same: they all stay at the Zoo!

This might surprise people, since Indiana winters are known to be harsh and filled with snow. But don’t worry; our animals don’t have to stay out in the snow all season. At least, not all of them. That’s right, some of our animals do stay outside during the winter, because they love the snow! Animals like our Canadian lynx and our Red Pandas are used to living in cold climates, and they have many adaptions that help them survive in the cold. For instance, “Red Pandas have fur covering every part of their body- even the bottom of their paws- to help keep them warm,” says Helena Lacey, Zookeeper. So when our keepers get to the Zoo after it snows, they find those animals right at home in their usual exhibits, enjoying the winter wonderland.

The animals that can’t be outside in the cold- like many of the animals that live in the African Journey-have indoor spaces that keep them safe and warm during the winter months. The giraffes have a huge barn that can be seen behind their exhibit where they go into at night and when it’s cold, and our alligators have a building to the left of their exhibit that keeps them toasty warm all year long.

Every animal is different, and each species has a different temperature threshold that they are able to tolerate. For instance, our giraffes can’t be outside if it’s less than 55 degrees outside, but our ostrich Penny can withstand temperatures as low as 0 degree Fahrenheit! Others animals, like our African penguins, surprise people- they actually hate the cold! “Most people assume penguins love the snow, but this particular species comes from southern Africa, and they can’t tolerate the cold Indiana winters,” Mitchell Overmyer (Zookeeper- Aquatics) tells us. So on cold days like today when the temperature is below 32 degrees, they stay inside.

Our animals stay here all year round, but so do our people. There’s another fact that usually surprises our guests: there are workers at the Zoo 365 days a year, even on Thanksgiving and Christmas! People can be shocked to hear this, but even though our gates aren’t open for the public, someone has to come take care of the animals each day. The Zoo is definitely a lot quieter in the off-season without all the guests around, but even in the dead of winter, the Zoo is always alive with activity!

 

Red pandas love playing in the snow!

 

Lynx have large snowshoe-like paws that help them navigate the snowy terrain.

 

Our otters clearly don’t mind the snow and ice!

“Quacking” the Code

When most people think of training animals, they think of alligators, lions, or other exotic animals that would be difficult to handle. However, our keeper Maggie Sipe is here to tell you that is not always the case! Even ducks- a seemingly simple animal- take patience and dedication to “quack” the code to successful training! Here’s Maggie’s report on how our three call ducks (adorably named after “The Big Bang Theory” characters) responded to their training, and how they are doing now:

Three call duck clutch mates, named Sheldon, Howard, and Leonard, arrived at the zoo in April of 2014. They were wary of keepers and unsure of their new environment. A need for training was established and positive relationship building began immediately.

Before training could begin, it was necessary to get the ducks more comfortable with the keepers and to get them to accept food from keepers. For months, all keepers who worked in the area would spend as much time as they could with the ducks to desensitize them to the keepers’ presence. Pretty soon, they readily accepted food from the keepers’ hands and would anticipate the arrival of keepers by exiting the pool to approach them.  Now that reinforcement could be delivered, the call duck training program began.


Training all three ducks at once proved to be a challenge, so individual training was pursued instead. Target training- getting the ducks to respond only to their specific target (corresponding to a color) was the first behavior goal for the ducks. The trainers believed it would be the most useful tool as a base for training.

Sheldon was the most dominant and food motivated individual at the time so training began with him. Sheldon was presented with the yellow target stick first. Through his natural curiosity, he pecked at it and caught on quickly that pecking the yellow stick led to a reward. Next he had to be taught that ignoring the red and blue targets led to a reward.  The trainer presented the red or blue target then bridged and reinforced before Sheldon had a chance to peck it.  Howard proved the second-most eager to participate, so he was trained next.  Sheldon remained indifferent to a second participant, as long as he received target training in the same session. The process was repeated with Howard using the red target stick. Having already trained color discrimination with Sheldon, the trainer applied previously learned lessons.  When Howard was introduced to the other targets, the trainer immediately reinforced for no reaction to yellow or blue.  This made the process much smoother for this individual.

Leonard was the least dominant individual and often displaced from food by his clutch mates.  To build Leonard’s confidence, the other two individuals were targeted out of the pool and heavily reinforced on the ground so that Leonard could train in the pool. Leonard was presented with the blue stick and quickly caught on that pecking it lead to a reward. By the time Leonard was ready to learn color discrimination, the other two no longer had to be separated out of the pool. It then became apparent that no training had to be done for this step as Leonard already avoided the other two targets.

Target training became such a strong and well established behavior that every time the trainer would enter the duck enclosure, the ducks would excitedly crowd around the trainer and run around displacing each other for opportunities to train, even fighting occasionally. This was the basis for the decision to train a station behavior next because stationing would be incompatible with running around and fighting. The criteria for the finished behavior would involve each duck calmly standing with both feet on their station mat.  The station mats were color specific which matched to each individual’s target color.  This mat could be moved throughout a session, and the duck would follow.

 

All three ducks on their training mats!

While the stations were successful in keeping the ducks in a relative location, they would not stay on station for any length of time.  A change in approach for station training was adapted from our sea lion training team and solved the issue. The sea lions at our facility are only reinforced once they have returned to station after completing a desired behavior and are calm for the acceptance of reinforcement.  When applied to the ducks, they would be targeted to a different area, but reinforcement was only given once they were back calmly waiting on their station.

The call ducks are vastly more comfortable in keepers’ presence after completing their training. The ducks are no longer fearful of enrichment items presented by the keepers and readily investigate new things. Keepers are able to observe their behaviors more easily and are able to determine the effectiveness of the enrichment towards eliciting natural behaviors. The ducks readily come out of their pool at night and shift into their indoor holding without the need of aversives. Monthly weights are recorded with no stress to the ducks at all.

The lives of these three individual ducks have improved greatly since the initiation of their training program. Giving the animals the choice to participate in their care has proved beneficial in improving the welfare for these individuals. Training these three small ducks has proved that every animal, no matter how big or how small, deserves a chance to have the choice and control in their environment.

 

Waddling Away With Our Hearts Part 2

After reading our first penguin post, you may think you’re an expert on our tuxedo-wearing birds. Well, you may be, but we’ve got even more fun facts about the lovable creatures.

A more commonly known fact about penguins may be this: our African penguins are known as “jackass penguins” due to the braying noise they make. You may have heard their donkey-like screeches when you visit their exhibit at the zoo, but there are a lot of other noises and behaviors they display that are important to their communication. For instance, one of the most popular displays is known as the vibrating head shake, which is where the bird bows the head, brings the bill close to the body, directed downwards and vibrates head from side to side. This can be used as a greeting between two penguins or as a courtship display between two potential mates.

Another important behavior is the “ecstatic” display, which is used as a territorial gesture between males to advertise ownership and availability for pairing by performing this display. The bird stands erect and slowly, deliberately, stretches his head and bill skywards, bill opening as head is raised, flippers raised until nearly horizontal. Breast and base of throat heave silently, then develop into throbs, then full braying with head thrown back, bill wide open, flippers beating back and forth in time with breast heaving. The display may last for up to a minute and the period of the display may last an hour or more with 12 or more displays in succession. The ecstatic display can also be made by mated males alone or in the company of their mate, and after an encounter with neighbor or rival on site. Braying and hissing can also be used by juveniles toward adult birds to communicate various things.

Since our penguins are extremely social birds, they usually stay very close together. Although one may wander a little farther away to explore a new part of the exhibit, they usually come back to the main group very quickly! Even in the wild, African penguins form large colonies on land to reproduce, molt, and rest together.

Although panting and using their special glands above their eyes helps them to cool down, sometimes our penguins like to take a good ole’ fashioned swim to beat the heat. In the wild, African penguins spend most of their time in the water foraging for food, but also use the cool water to bathe and cool down in! In the zoo, our penguins don’t have to hunt for their food, but you can often find them swimming laps just because they enjoy the water so much.

Besides being cute and interesting, our African penguins also love to have fun! Although they are often found burrowing with their mates in the shade near the back of their exhibit, they also love to chase things. Sometimes you can see them waddling quickly, trying to catch flying insects! In fact, they all love doing this so much that one of their enrichment activities involves blowing bubbles and encouraging the penguins to chase them throughout their exhibit. Spend some extra time near their exhibit and see if you can catch them in the act displaying any of these cute behaviors!

The #InvestInTheNest campaign that we have partnered with for the past month has seen amazing success! Although the original goal was to reach $150,000, that total was exceeded before the official end of the campaign! As of June 16, the last day to donate to the cause, the total pledged is $181,568!! We’re so grateful to everyone who donated to help save this vulnerable species. If you don’t know about the Kickstarter campaign, it was started to help raise funds to build artificial nests for the African penguins in Southern Africa. Due to over harvesting of penguin guano, which is used as fertilizer, penguins are left with nothing to build their nests with, and have to resort to building them out of trash and other less than ideal materials. This leaves the new penguin chicks vulnerable to predators. But thanks to support of people like you, we will now be able to build 2,000 hand-made nests for the penguins who so desperately need them!

We love our adorable, fun, and spunky penguin friends, and know that you do too! Donating to causes like Invest In The Nest is a great way to help this endangered species, but supporting your local zoo and all zoos and aquariums that house African penguins is another good way to help out. If you visit our zoo, be sure to stop by and see the penguins in their exhibit- but be careful, because they just might waddle away with your heart!