Toronto Zoo – Rebecca McDonald

Birds of prey have long captured the attention of animal lovers worldwide. A highly diverse and charismatic group, to us they represent everything from national emblems to beloved Disney characters. Despite this, many of us know very little about the avian species that we can find right here in North America.

As a participant in the OVC Summer CORE program, I attended a behind-the-scenes tour of the Bird Barn at the Toronto Zoo. The knowledgeable keepers work with a variety of species of bird (including local species!), with distinct personalities. They stressed the importance of working with the birds in a way that best suited them, never putting them in a role they were not comfortable with. While some birds do glove-work and circulate the zoo as ambassadors, others are stars of the Birds of Prey show (unfortunately, not running on the day of the trip due to extreme heat). Building on natural abilities the birds have, each act in the show communicates to the public broader themes of evolution and conservation. The keeper explained how they were training their American Kestrel (born in captivity) to wind-hover, as they are the only bird of prey species to do so in the wild. Whereas their hawks fly freely, displaying the great speeds they swoop down while hunting. Many hawks – including some of those at the Toronto Zoo– become non-releasable after being hit by cars, the zookeepers revealed. The hawks are drawn to rodents that litter on the highway attracts, and dive so quickly cars do not have time to avoid them. The tour concluded with a bird that seemed out of place among the birds of prey, but was particularly charming – Michael the Pigeon. Michael preferred the company of humans above all else, and navigated his enclosure using a series of carefully positioned perches and ledges. His wings stuck out at an angle, and were unable to support him for flight. Michael has “angel wing”, the same condition we see in ducks fed a high calorie and nutrient poor diet. The most common culprit? Bread, fed by well-meaning individuals.

My day at the zoo opened my eyes to the impact that small acts by each of us can have on these animals. It also allowed me a greater appreciation of the spectrum of species veterinarians can treat and maintain out of a traditional clinic role.