By Ben Rodgers
SUAMICO – Big, goofy, curious, sometimes intimidating and always hungry, this month’s Animals of the Month are a pair of American white pelicans.
Bubbles and Princess Sparkles are rescue birds. Because of eye injuries they are unable to survive in the wild.
They are currently on winter break in a room controlled at 75 degrees at the NEW Zoo.
“Everything is a toy,” said Becky Jahns, zookeeper. “Big personalities, they explore the world with their beaks, if they can throw it around they will, very curious but kind of peculiar at the same time.”
Bubbles and Princess Sparkles are estimated to be around 6 or 7 years old.
In the wild, the species is native to this area.
“We joke that’s the first sign of spring,” Jahns said. “The robins will stick around, but as soon as you see a pelican, you’re set.”
The birds are some of the heaviest flying birds in North America and have wingspans reaching up to 9 feet.
Jahns said the species had a pronounced decline in population due to excessive DDT spraying in the mid 20th century. But numbers have bounced back.
“The last 10 years we’ve been seeing a lot more of them in the area,” she said. “Rebounding nicely after that.”
Part of Jahns’ job is working with Bubbles and Princess Sparkles during the offseason, training the birds for their own safety and health.
When the weather is warmer the pair call the zoo’s aviary home, and put on feeding demonstrations for guests.
Right now they are down to eating roughly 2 pounds of day of capelin and herring. In the summer that was closer to 3 pounds.
Considering the birds only weigh roughly 15 pounds, that’s a lot of fish.
Jahns works with them regularly to train them to come into contact for vaccines, check their feet, go to their stumps for food, or enter a crate for transportation to medical care.
A bird that goes into a crate willingly with a 9-foot wingspan is easier for all parties involved.
“Training done well is a game for them,” she said. “They are thinking ‘Oh my gosh, I can make this lady give me food by walking over here and doing this thing, and fish fall from the sky.’”
All training is positive-reinforcement based, which means if the birds do as their told, they get food.
“I love getting that relationship building,” Jahns said. “Getting to know each of them on that level. They aren’t the same even though they are the same species.”
Princess Sparkles is more outgoing, while Bubbles is a little more reserved.
The duo are probably two of the most socially-adjusted animals who call the NEW Zoo home, Jahns said, considering the training they receive and the fact that when outside in the aviary they are well-behaved with guests.
For Jahns, having birds that were once wild respond to commands for their own betterment is the most rewarding part of her job, despite the fact that she has gotten nibbled on in the past.
“They’re sweethearts, but they do explore the world with their beaks,” she said.