Education: Teenagers Learn Civic Responsibility at Detroit Zoo

Volunteers at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center play a hugely important role in our operations. They interact with visitors, pass on important stories about the animals that live here, share our mission of Celebrating and Saving Wildlife and facilitate experiences that engage our guests in creating a better tomorrow for all animals.

Our volunteer corps donates more than 100,000 hours of service every year. We have opportunities for individuals and groups 13 years of age and older to assist us during special events, to greet guests as they arrive at the Zoo and provide directions throughout our 125 acres, and to engage with visitors in areas including the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery, the Australian Outback Adventure and the Arctic Ring of Life.

This past spring, we amped up our recruitment efforts for the Volunteen Corps, which resulted in our numbers tripling. This a fantastic opportunity for local teenagers to earn community service hours while gaining leadership experience and building communication skills in a professional work setting. Volunteering not only builds a teen’s resume by adding valuable skills and experience, but it helps develop a sense of civic responsibility. Volunteering at the Zoo also allows these students to spend time in nature while learning about animals and the environment and how we can all be great stewards of this planet. The Volunteens who’ve worked with us are highly engaged and enthusiastic about interacting with guests of all ages – especially children – and sharing all they have learned during their time here.

Fifteen thousand visitors have interacted with our more than 80 Volunteens since June. Many of those participated in a hands-on activity that explored how sound energy travels while sharing an important animal welfare message. Stationed just outside the entrance to the Holden Reptile Conservation Center, teens demonstrated how sound travels and allowed guests to try their hand at making sound waves move by sanding sugar on a taut plastic surface. The teens then skillfully steered the conversation toward the concept that tapping on the glass of the reptile habitats allows sound and vibrations to travel into the habitat space, possibly disturbing if not upsetting the animals that live on the other side.

As the weather cools down, the Zoo Corps is helping us with Zoo Boo, our annual Halloween celebration held on weekends in October. The Spooky Science Laboratory is crawling with trick-or-treaters and our teen volunteers assist them as they explore pumpkin and squash guts, predict how many mosquitos a bat eats in a single night, and determine how neighborhood wildlife can do your pumpkin carving for you.

 

We are also working with our Zoo Corps to tell stories about our mission while building communication skills. A small cohort of teens participated in storytelling training and are sharing the real-life stories of animals that have been rescued by the Detroit Zoological Society as well as tales of wildlife conservation work we are involved in locally and internationally.

Starting in November, our teens will be doing science activities on Sunday evenings during our annual holiday celebration, Wild Lights. Hands-on activities will be sure to delight guests as they enjoy the more than five million lights illuminating buildings, trees and more than 230 animal sculptures.

If you know a teenager who would be interested in joining the Volunteen Zoo Corps, please encourage him or her to apply! We are currently recruiting teens for a mid-November training session. Learn more: https://detroitzoo.org/support/volunteer/

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Tiny Shorebirds Get New Chance at Survival

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small shore bird that breeds in three distinct geographic locations; the beaches along the Atlantic coast, the shorelines of the Great Lakes, and along major rivers of the northern Great Plains. The Great Lakes population is classified as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the other two populations are classified as threatened.

At one point, this population of Great Lakes piping plovers was estimated to range from 12 to 32 breeding pairs. After extensive observation, scientists found that plover nests were abandoned and concluded that salvaging these abandoned eggs could contribute to the species’ recovery. For almost two decades, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has led the effort to collect these abandoned eggs, incubate them and rear the chicks that hatch until they can be released to join wild plovers.

The DZS operates the captive rearing facility at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, Mich., and oversees aviculturists from the Detroit Zoo and other Association of Zoos & Aquariums institutions who staff the facility from May through August. The dedicated zookeepers monitor the eggs during incubation and care for the chicks after they hatch. Once they are able to fly, after about four weeks, the birds – that would have otherwise perished – are banded and released into the wild. As they migrate to their wintering grounds, the plovers are identified by birders and photographers who report their findings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I spent five weeks this summer at the captive rearing center, working with what I believe are some of the cutest chicks in the world. While our conservation efforts have been incredibly successful over the last 17 years, the Great Lakes piping plover population is still less than 80 breeding pairs annually. This year, seven DZS zookeepers and 12 staff members from eight other zoos helped raise 16 chicks from abandoned eggs to join the more than 90 chicks that wild birds raised.

Adult piping plovers tend to breed around the shores of the Great Lakes on large patches of undisturbed sandy beach filled with cobble. Sometimes, their nests are washed out by waves, a parent is killed by a predator, or an unleashed dog causes abandonment. These nests are closely monitored and when staff has determined that the eggs are not being incubated, they are officially declared abandoned and the eggs are transferred to the captive rearing center. In some cases, such as when a storm is passing through, “dummy” eggs will be placed in the nest while the real eggs are placed in an incubator overnight and then returned the next day.

The captive rearing center has multiple incubators and equipment to nurture each egg and provide the conditions it needs to develop a healthy embryo. After almost four weeks in the egg, a little plover chick will spend two to four days hatching. Newly hatched chicks weigh about as much as three pennies yet are very mobile, looking for food within a few hours of hatching. When a full clutch of four chicks hatches, it looks like four cotton balls on eight toothpicks running around.

Rearing plover chicks properly and assuring they will be ready for release is no easy task. We weigh the chicks every morning and observe them to make sure each bird is thriving. Bonnie Van Dam, the DZS’s associate curator of birds and manager of the captive rearing operations, fields any questions from staff. One chick in particular needed a little more help from staff this year as it had difficulty hatching, curved toes, bowed legs and some feather abnormalities (genetic issues that can’t be avoided), but zookeepers did not give up on this little chick, providing antibiotics, extra feeds and extra practice flying. In the end, although a little different, this bird had incredible character running around and flying well.

We routinely feed the birds a variety of insects every few hours while they also learn to forage on wild insects. They grow fast and their flight feathers start coming in within two weeks. At 17 or 18 days old, the piping plovers are starting to stretch their wings and by 25-27 days they should be flying well. We have one flight pen along the beach where the plovers grow, forage and learn natural behaviors; another is attached to our building to give them outdoor access overnight and more space to practice flying.

Plover fledglings are usually released between 28 and 33 days old. This year we reared 16 chicks that were released into the wild. Most releases occur in an area where there are similarly aged wild chicks; often the releases happen at Sleeping Bear Dunes. It is an incredible feeling opening the door to the crate and letting these small chicks fly free. They immediately start foraging, bathing and or flying around. With a little luck and some decent wind, they will make it to the Atlantic coast or maybe even the Bahamas, enjoy winter, and return to northern Michigan next spring. On August 14, we released the final four birds of the season at Sleeping Bear Dunes, including the special little chick who needed all the extra help. This bird ran down the beach and almost immediately started flying! Each piping plover is a special part of our Great Lakes ecosystem – please be mindful as you share the beaches with these charismatic yet fragile friends.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.