Detroit Zoo Welcomes Nearly 100 Bird Species During Spring Migration

Throughout spring migration, the Detroit Zoo’s 125 acres provided refuge to many weary travelers. Now that the season is coming to a close, our staff is looking back at all the feathered friends who used our grounds as a stop on their journeys.

Read more about migration season and how you can help birds arrive at their destinations safely.

Blackpoll warbler

Over the last couple months, Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) team members have spent many hours surveying what bird species have been utilizing the habitats here at the Detroit Zoo. Some of these species live here year-round, while many species have shown up during migration and will spend the summer here breeding on Zoo grounds. Additionally, several species have used the Zoo to rest or refuel for a matter of hours or days on a long journey home to their breeding grounds.

We have seen and heard many species of songbirds, black-crowned night herons, a redhead, spotted sandpipers and much more! From March until the end of May, we accumulated at least 93 species on Zoo grounds.

Canada warbler

The incredible journeys these brave travelers make every year are hard to put into words. Many winter as far south as Central or South America and may head far north of us into the Upper Peninsula or northern Canada to breed. The blackpoll warbler is one of these extraordinary migrants who recharged at the Zoo this May. This tiny, insectivorous species only weighs around 11 grams and sings a very high-pitched song. They often travel more than 10,000 miles round trip — including an Atlantic Ocean crossing — as they head back and forth from South America to northern Canada and Alaska. 

Migrating birds overcome extreme challenges when heading back and forth between breeding and wintering grounds. Besides exhaustion and native predators, there are many human-made challenges.  Fragmented habitats, light pollution, domestic cats and windows are just some of the man-made threats that make migration even harder. Here at the Detroit Zoo, we are proud to provide these birds an excellent, protected habitat on their perilous journeys.

Learn how you can help reduce light pollution and save birds’ lives.

— Matt Porter is a member of the DZS birds animal care staff.

Flying High: Celebrating World Migratory Bird Day

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas — bird migration season! It’s the time of year when birds who left Michigan during the winter months to find refuge in warmer states make their triumphant return. Look outside, and you are likely to see robins, Canada geese and sandhill cranes among the birds flying in the spring Michigan skies, happy to be back after a cold winter away.

American robin, Jennifer Harte

While everyone at the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) celebrates these birds every day, we are encouraging the public to join us in celebrating and raising awareness around the conservation of local species on World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) May 14.

WMBD, formerly International Migratory Bird Day, is an annual campaign highlighting the need for the conservation of migratory birds and their habitats. Through a collaboration of festivals and events from partners across the globe, WMBD brings awareness to the threats migratory birds face, as well as the birds’ ecological importance and the need for bird conservation.

Sandhill crane, Patti Truesdell

While all aspects of bird conservation are important, this year the organizations behind WMBD are focusing on fighting light pollution and harm it can cause to migratory birds.

Light pollution, or the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light, affects our world in numerous ways, from limiting our view of the night sky to disrupting human sleep patterns. However, light pollution’s most devastating impacts are felt by wildlife — and migratory birds are no exception.

Most birds migrate at night due to the calm skies and lack of predators. These birds use the moon and stars to guide their way — a system that has worked for eons. However, with light pollution encroaching further and further along the night sky (at a rate of increase of at least 2 percent per year, according to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Institute), migratory birds’ journeys are becoming increasingly dangerous. Read our recent blog post to learn more about light pollution and how to mitigate its effects on local wildlife.

When artificial lights from nearby cities enter the night sky, migrating birds can become distracted and veer off course into threatening territory. When distracted by light pollution, birds become more likely to land in dangerous areas, where they are prone to collisions and vulnerable to unfamiliar predators.

One of the biggest dangers presented to birds drawn into urban areas impacted by light pollution is needlessly illuminated office buildings. According to the International Dark Sky Association, millions of birds in the United States die each year by colliding with empty office buildings and towers that are lit up at night. Additionally, light pollution impacts migration patterns, confusing and disrupting mating and feeding schedules.

Canada geese returning to summer in Michigan.

All of this information paints a bleak portrait for the future of the feathered fowl who migrate across the U.S., but don’t lose hope! There are things each and every one of us can do to help local birds travel safely.

• First, turn off your lights at night. Unused lights, particular in unused office buildings, present a great danger to traveling fowl.

• Second, make the switch to shielded outdoor lighting. Outdoor lighting should be shielded and directed downward, where it can illuminate the ground rather than contaminate the night sky.

• Third, research and follow bird-safe habits that help reduce the hazards birds face during the migration process. In addition to turning lights off at night, these practices can include installing screens, decorative window film or window art to help prevent birds from hitting glass; moving feeders as close to windows as possible and bleaching bird feeders once a month; and practicing green gardening by growing native plants and avoiding insecticides.

Window decals can be added to increase visibility and reduce bird-strike.

The DZS has long been a supporter and practitioner of bird-safe initiatives. In 2017, we made it official by partnering with the Metro Detroit Nature Network, now known as SEMI Wild, which signed the Urban Conservation Treaty for Migratory Birds, designating Metro Detroit an Urban Bird Treaty area. Among other things, the treaty promotes bird conservation through Lights Out programs. Now, five years later, we are proud to promote these Lights Out programs, which encourage organizations and individuals to turn off or reduce interior and exterior lights during spring and fall migration, in honor of WMBD.

While there is much to be done to provide our feathered friends with safe travels this migration season, know that you can play a part by turning off one light at a time.

Bonnie Van Dam is the curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Amazon Rainforest Conservation Partnership Helps Rural Communities

In March 2020, my suitcases were packed, and a group of 40 volunteers was ready to fly down to Iquitos, Peru to deliver school supplies to remote communities along the Amazon and Napo rivers in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest. 

Three days before my flight, Peru closed its borders in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.  The Peruvian school year starts in March, so schools didn’t open for months, and even then classes were hosted only virtually. This provided an opportunity for many of the students who lived in cities to attend but left behind the communities on the river, which had no devices or access to the internet. For two full years, Adopt-a-School community partners had no access to formal education. Even more devastating than the education gap, Peru holds the highest rate of COVID-19 fatalities out of any country in the world. 

This year, as I packed my bags again, I couldn’t help but wonder if we would be able to travel. With new variants being identified regularly, I was very conscious of the responsibility that comes with international travel. I needed to keep myself and  the communities we would be visiting healthy, as well as my family when I returned home. I took extra precautions, including wearing an N95 mask the entire time I was traveling through airports and on planes. As health care workers know all too well, wearing an N95 mask for 24 hours straight is challenging and not comfortable! 

When I arrived in Iquitos, I met with our partners at Conservación de la Naturaleza Amazónica del Peru AC (known as CONAPAC), the Peruvian nonprofit that facilitates the Adopt-a-School program and several other important projects in the rainforest. A small group of volunteers that had been scheduled for the 2020 trip joined us for the school supply deliveries. We reviewed our ambitious schedule of visiting nine schools each day for five straight days and packed all the school supplies onboard the cargo boat that would be traveling with us on the river. 

We traveled out to the farthest of Amazon Explorama’s lodges, Explor Napo, and settled in for the three nights we’d be staying there. On Monday morning, we packed our lunches, divided into three groups and headed out on the river. Each of the three boats had three to four  people aboard, plus the boat driver. The rides to the schools vary, from as little as 15 minutes to sometimes more than an hour. I was visiting one of the largest communities that first morning, and we spent about 45 minutes on the boat until we arrived at Urco Miraño. 

We spent several hours in the community, distributing a school supply packet to every kindergarten, elementary and high school student (more than 100 all together!), and their teachers. We also delivered supplies for the schools in general and notebooks for the community leaders. Access to quality learning materials is an equity issue. Most families living in rainforest communities don’t have easy access to cities to purchase materials, nor do they always have the financial means to do so. While the Peruvian government provides a school building and teachers, the gap in learning materials puts the remote communities at a distinct disadvantage from their peers in cities. Living in one of the world’s most biodiverse and ecologically important areas makes access to a quality education imperative to the future of the region. 

The process of traveling to communities and sharing school supplies repeated throughout the week. Toward the end of their school year (likely in September), we will reach out to all the teachers in the communities to ask what supplies they need for their classroom. That way, we can tailor the 2023 delivery to their needs. All the materials are purchased in Peru, which supports the local economy, ensures materials fit with local curriculum guidelines and drastically reduces shipping and customs fees. The supplies are purchased with donations from an international group of donors, many of whom have traveled to the rainforest previously. If you would like to support the Adopt-a-School program, ensuring access to educational opportunities in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, please visit our website for more information. 

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

An Evening of Learning and Bonding for Families in Need

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all struggled to grasp the new normal. It has brought new challenges and complicated old ones, yet we continue to push through. The pandemic is especially challenging for people already facing extremely stressful situations, like homelessness and domestic violence. Research indicates that even short respites of spending time in a safe, enjoyable experience can provide much needed relief and reprieve. 

This year, the Detroit Zoological Society hosted several private programs called Nocturnal Adventures. These evening programs catered to more than 270 individuals who are dealing with significant hardship. This positive experience is provided through our partnerships with HAVEN, Turning Point, First Step, the Coalition on Temporary Shelter and the Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter Team. The program includes transportation to and from the Detroit Zoo, dinner, a guided evening tour of the Zoo and an education program that focuses on the stories of rescued animals who have found sanctuary at the Detroit Zoo. 

The evening starts with dinner. The meal is shared between the DZS staff, volunteers and our guests. This community building aspect is an opportunity to get to know each other while sharing a meal. We all have more in common than we may first assume and the conversations that evolve are both heartwarming and enjoyable. 

The tour that follows is led by DZS volunteers and education staff. As they lead guests through the Zoo, they share stories of the animals who have found sanctuary after challenging experiences. Many of the animals have suffered injuries in the wild and can no longer survive on their own without human care. Some have come from private ownership where proper care or habitat space was not available. As a result, the animals required urgent intervention and oftentimes specialized care. They are stories of new beginnings and hope.  

Toward the end of the evening, a craft activity provides all participants the opportunity to choose two plants and to decorate a pot for each. The participants can choose to keep and care for both, or to give one to someone. Caring for another living thing and giving are both learned skills. Regularly being on the receiving end of care and support can be taxing on a person, which makes having the opportunity to give or care for something an important element. Taking care of a plant also reinforces that an individual’s choices and actions matter. If the plant isn’t cared for in a manner that meets its basic needs, the plant won’t survive. However, if thoughtfully tended to, the plant will thrive. 

The evenings conclude with the opportunity for participants, staff and volunteers to make s’mores together over a fire pit. This simple, albeit sticky and sweet, ending is a chance to reflect on the evening, share a few more stories and look forward to new beginnings. 

The programs are made possible by dedicated funding from the Detroit Zoological Society and generous donations from the Kellogg Foundation and the Butzel Long Law Firm, an institution deeply involved in Detroit and southeast Michigan for more than 165 years.   

In addition to their financial support, volunteers from Butzel Long had the opportunity to help at a recent event. “We are very happy to have partnered with the Detroit Zoo on the Nocturnal Adventures program. It is our pleasure and honor to give back to our communities, to partner with great institutions like the Detroit Zoo and to do our small part to help those who need it,” said Paul Mersino, attorney and counselor of Butzel Long Law Firm.To support the Detroit Zoological Society’s commitment to providing educational programs for the community, visit detroitzoo.org/support/give/detroit-zoo-fund/.

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is the director of education and D’Nae Hearn is an education specialist for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Learn About the Wolf-Moose Project on Isle Royal

The Detroit Zoological Society’s top-notch education staff are always hard at work creating original lessons and content for students and families in metro Detroit and beyond. DZS educational offerings teach students to have empathy for wildlife while providing science, technology, engineering and math experiences – particularly for students who are underrepresented in or lack equal access to high-quality STEM learning. In one highly-popular six-part DZS offering, students practice science from the perspective of professional conservationists researching moose and wolves on Isle Royale.

Isle Royale is part of an archipelago in Lake Superior, an island ecosystem that supports plant and animal life through harsh winters and mild summers. It is also home to the longest-running research project dedicated to a predator-prey relationship in the world. Called the Wolf-Moose Project, the study has documented and analyzed the moose and wolf populations living on the island since 1958, investigating the complex and dynamic relationships between predators and prey while considering humans’ role in the changing ecosystem. 

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) supports the work on Isle Royale financially and by sending staff to participate in this study through an annual Moosewatch expedition.  DZS-led Moosewatch teams spend just over a week hiking throughout the island to look for Moose that have passed away. If they find one, they will collect specific bones for the study. Analyzing the bones can provide insight into how the moose died – whether from old age, disease, lack of food or predation from wolves. This information is critical to understanding the health of the ecosystem. 

To bring this powerful story to life for school-age youth, DZS educators created a six-module course for middle and high school students. The on-demand, online learning experience addresses science, literacy and math standards through an interrupted case-study model. In this framework, course participants take on the role of a wildlife biologist who has been tasked with examining data, historical information and other evidence to make an assessment of the health of the island ecosystem. 

Photo taken by Jennifer Harte of Renner at the Detroit Zoo.

Drawing on this information, participants make a recommendation to either continue relocating wolves from the mainland to the islands, in an attempt to slow the rapidly growing moose population, or to let the current populations remain as they are, allowing nature to take its course. The experience is designed to help participants consider the perspectives of several key stakeholders, including conservationists, research scientists and the animals themselves. 

After submitting a recommendation for wolf population management, participants can schedule a time to meet with a Detroit Zoological Society staff member, who can answer questions, provide information about the wolves who live at the Detroit Zoo, and share stories about our conservation work. Several staff have participated in the annual Moosewatch program on Isle Royale and can provide first-hand accounts of the island. There is a charge for this virtual meeting with DZS staff, but the rest of the course is free. 

Gray wolves and humans have a long and complicated relationship. Wolves have been portrayed as villains, both in the media and literature, for generations. The reality is that all animals have an important role in their respective ecosystems, and it is our responsibility to find ways to coexist peacefully. The study on Isle Royale has provided a tremendous amount of information that has challenged our knowledge of predator and prey relationships, and how dynamic they are. This course provides an opportunity for students to learn about these relationships on Isle Royale by making use of real data and experiences – and while building critical skills they will need as our future leaders and decision makers.

Launch the course.

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


Polar Bear Cub Development and Welfare: A Team Effort from the Detroit Zoo

This photo of Suka and Astra was taken by Dr. Kylen N. Gartland.

What’s more exciting than a polar bear cub? Two polar bear cubs! The birth of any animal here at the Detroit Zoo is exciting, but polar bears offer special cause for celebration. The Detroit Zoo is proudly home to the Arctic Ring of Life – one of North America’s largest state-of-the-art polar bear habitats. These rambunctious new cubs will grow up exploring the more than 4 acres of outdoor and indoor habitats and are the latest polar bears to call the Detroit Zoo home.

Astra and Laerke were born to mom, Suka, and dad, Nuka, on November 17, 2020. Staff from all over the Zoo watched specially equipped cameras in Suka’s maternity den with bated breath, waiting for the arrival of little Astra and Laerke. Once the cubs made their appearance, it was all hands on deck. Even with expert care, polar bear cubs have a high mortality rate in captivity. With this in mind, the question at the forefront of everyone’s mind was a relatively straightforward one – how do we give these cubs the best shot at long, happy and healthy lives?

Newborn polar bears are blind, thinly haired and weigh only around one pound. Despite being born between November and December, mothers and newborn cubs usually remain in the maternal den until late March or even early April. What happens in those five months is largely unknown. There has been very little long-term monitoring on polar bear cubs due to obstacles such as camera placement and staffing availability, which make observing activity in the maternal den challenging. With the combined efforts of team members with diverse skills and backgrounds, the Detroit Zoological Society has undertaken to monitor and report on the growth and development of Astra and Laerke through their first full year of life. With this project, Detroit Zoological Society staff hope not only to ensure that Astra and Laerke thrive, but also to provide a crucial resource for other zoological institutions around the world endeavoring to rear polar bear cubs.

This photo of Laerke was taken by Dr. Kylen N. Gartland.

In order to pursue this goal, the Detroit Zoological Society staff needed to come up with a plan that would grow and change alongside Astra and Laerke. Additionally, we needed to be able to monitor the well-being of the cubs from multiple perspectives, both physical and emotional. Phase One of this project has been championed largely by the Arctic Ring of Life staff, mammal curators, veterinarians and the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE). Just a few days after birth, Laerke appeared to need extra support. After careful consideration, we made the difficult decision to remove Laerke from Suka’s care and continue rearing her in the veterinary hospital. With staff never more than a radio call away, Laerke spent her first few months growing and thriving in a behind-the-scenes nursery before transitioning to her own living space at the Arctic Ring of Life. During this time, we were able to weigh Laerke, measure her, and monitor milestones in her growth. It is important to establish normal developmental ranges so that veterinary staff can assess the health and well-being of the animals under their care. Data gathered by tracking Laerke’s growth spurts and noting her key developmental milestones will go a long way towards understanding the needs of baby polar bears. Meanwhile, using cameras in the behind-the-scenes maternal den, we were able to observe Suka and Astra 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. While the presence of cameras in zoological settings is not unusual, prolonged 24/7 monitoring certainly is! Detroit Zoological Society staff came together to share this monumental task for a full 12 weeks. Animal care staff watched more than 2,000 hours of recorded video (120,960 minutes!) and gathered invaluable data on mother-cub denning behavior.

With hundreds of hours of video data, scientists from CZAAWE offered to help with data analysis, freeing up animal care staff to focus on the growing needs of the cubs. Using this valuable dataset, we have been able to answer questions critical to early polar bear development. How frequently does a baby polar bear nurse? When does a baby polar bear leave the nest for the first time? What does maternal behavior look like for a polar bear? With recent transitions to live observations, we have been able to watch as the cubs become increasingly confident and exploratory. We continue to work together to provide peak care and ensure excellent welfare for Astra and Laerke as they approach their eighth month. We look forward to keeping you updated on their progress!


– Dr. Kylen N. Gartland is manager of applied animal welfare science for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Free Virtual Zoo Camp Has Arrived — Enjoy at Your Own Pace

Virtual Zoo Camp is Calling!

From the stellar Detroit Zoological Society education team that brought you Virtual Vitamin Z lessons during a pandemic, comes Summer Virtual Ventures, free digital programming that gives you the opportunity to enjoy a camp experience from the comfort of your own home.

Summer Virtual Ventures includes exciting animal-related content, expert interviews, hands-on activities and much more.

New virtual camps will be posted weekly through the end of August 2020.

Check out a few of the Summer Virtual Ventures below:

PENGUIN CONSERVATION CHALLENGES
In this icy adventure, learners will take on the role of conservation field workers researching penguins in Antarctica and the Falkland Islands. You’ll work to find creative solutions to the many challenges that accompany fieldwork. Shadow animal care staff and get an exclusive look at what it is like to care for the penguins at the Detroit Zoo.

Adventure Now

AMAZON RAINFOREST CONSERVATION
Wildlife conservationists and scientists need your help! Working in the Amazon rainforest comes with many challenges. Try to solve them while learning more about the animals who live in the rainforest.

Adventure Now

Detroit Zoological Society Delivers Free Virtual Learning Programs During Pandemic

When we made the decision to temporarily close the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew we had to find a way to stay connected with our wonderful community. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) education team took on the challenge, pivoting to deliver virtual programs.

Since mid-March, our team has produced more than 150 free virtual learning programs to help students, families and lifelong learners continue to explore wildlife conservation, animal welfare, environmental sustainability and humane education.

While we continue to hold lessons on Facebook Live, you can also find the videos on our Virtual Vitamin Z Youtube channel. We also have a new online tool that allows you to search for lessons, including activities, based on grade levels and subjects.

Even though we have since reopened the Detroit Zoo to visitors by reservation, we are still working to reach more of our community through digital means. The DZS education team is also working on Summer Virtual Ventures and producing longer lesson plans for people throughout Michigan.

Check out a sample of some of the team’s virtual learning programs below:

Learn about Partula nodosa snails and how the Detroit Zoological Society brought them back from the brink of extinction. 

Discover what rhinos Jasiri and Tamba were up to during the shutdown.

Visit the penguins in the Penguinarium and learn how water plays a critical role in their well-being.
Did you hear? The black-crowned night herons that roost at the Detroit Zoo are back.
Join David for a Wildlife Adventure Story about zebras. 
Sandy has a sneak peek of our DZS summer programming.

Thank you for all of your support and encouragement. We hope to continue to provide enriching lessons for our community and beyond. 

– Alexandra Bahou is the communications manager for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Frog-Themed Activities in Honor of World Frog Day!

Spring is finally here — and so is World Frog Day! The weather is gradually warming up and plants are bursting through the soil, preparing to dazzle us with their blooms. Spring also brings the beautiful sounds of frogs and toads calling to each other. In honor of World Frog Day, we are sharing frog-themed activities that can be done at home with minimal supplies.

PT Borneo eared frog

Frogs live on six of the Earth’s seven continents, all of them except Antarctica. They are all different colors and sizes. The largest species of frog, the goliath frog, measures 8” to 12” in length. That is about the size of a piece of copy paper!  The smallest known frog, one of the microhylid frogs, measures less than half an inch, about the width of a regular size paperclip. If you have children at home, pull out a paper clip and a piece of copy paper. Have them compare the items to objects around the house to see what is larger than the world’s largest frog and what is smaller than the world’s smallest frog. Comparing sizes of different things helps people build number sense, or an intuitive understanding of numbers, an important skill for all of us to master, especially young children.

Green Mantella - Adam Dewey

Michigan is home to 13 species of frogs and toads. It is usually easier to hear them calling or singing to each other, than it is to actually see them. That is because they are well camouflaged, meaning they blend in with their surroundings. It is important to know which species of frogs and toads live in certain areas. They are considered bioindicators, which means they are species of animals who are greatly impacted by the health of the environment. If the water, wetlands and other places they live are polluted or contaminated, they cannot survive. If their habitat is clean and healthy, many species or individuals will be living there, all calling out to each other in a beautiful chorus.

FrogWatch - Bullfrog

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) leads a FrogWatch Chapter (aza.org/frogwatch and detroitzoo.org/animals/frogwatch/) to train people, like you, to recognize and record frog calls around Michigan. The data that people submit helps DZS staff and researchers to analyze and better understand frog populations throughout our area and across the country.

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This spring, consider spending time outside in the evening to listen for frogs and toads. You can practice being a frog and toad researcher, or a citizen scientist, by learning the calls and recording information like date, temperature, weather conditions, the time you start and stop listening, and the species you hear. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has short recordings of each species on their website to help you learn them. Practicing recording data is an important skill, especially for kids. Send your data to Rebecca Johnson (rjohnson@dzs.org) or Mike Reed (mreed@dzs.org). Next year, you can join us for training to become a certified FrogWatch participant. The earliest calling frogs will be starting soon, the wood frogs and spring peepers, so pick a night where the temperature is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit and head outside to listen!

 

A Trip to a Cultural Institution Provides More Than Just Fun

A trip to a zoo, nature center or other cultural institution is often planned as a recreational or primarily social event. The reality is these visits are critical learning experiences for youth and adults alike. School-age children spend considerably more time out of school than they do at school. Between evenings, weekends and breaks, in the United States, school accounts for about 6.7 hours a day for 180 days, or roughly 25% of a child’s time spent awake each year. The opportunities youth have in their out-of-school time can make a significant difference in their future school, career and life trajectories.

10-16-18 DATZ

Cultural institutions are favorite places to visit for a variety of reasons: many people feel safe visiting their local and regional institutions, and they find the exhibits and experiences relevant and meaningful. The institutions are rich in learning opportunities and removed from that typical school-day feeling. They are fun, engaging and memorable. Many institutions are free to visit or offer memberships that make frequent visits affordable.

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The Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center are top informal learning institutions in the community, combining opportunities to observe animals in naturalistic habitats with stories of individual animals. Many animals are part of critical, global conservation initiatives; others have been rescued from unfortunate circumstances and have inspiring stories about second chances and new beginnings. These stories are shared through signage, in-person by staff and volunteers, and by digital media available to guests. In addition, guests often have the opportunity to participate in hands-on activities that focus on science concepts while engaging with experts in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers during their visit. Perhaps most importantly, visitors build their understanding of animals’ adaptations, physical appearances, behaviors and individual personalities through their observations. This information creates an awareness about the natural world and how human and non-human animals share the same spaces and interact.

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Young children, from birth to kindergarten age, are creating their understanding of the world, they’re building their vocabulary and figuring out how things work with an insatiable, natural curiosity. Exposure to places like the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center are critical to developing their future skills and interests. The Belle Isle Nature Center has indoor and outdoor play areas designed specifically for young children. Both areas have natural items like tree cross sections, natural building blocks, rocks and seasonal items like acorns and pinecones for visitors to discover. Adults are essential mentors as they encourage youth to manipulate objects, provide correct vocabulary to identify items, and prompt early learners with questions so they can investigate together. These actions explore cause and effect, help draw parallels between what children know and are learning, and aid in the development of scientific thinking skills.

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As a whole, these experiences build visitors’ understanding of the natural world and systems within it. During a visit, guests have opportunities to explore their impact, both direct and indirect, on those systems and how they can make informed decisions that ultimately benefit themselves, wildlife and wild places. Guests who regularly visit informal learning institutions with children are predisposing them to be interested in STEM-related fields and equipping them with the essential skills needed to pursue those careers, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and planning and conducting investigations. So the next time you think: “we should do something fun today, like visit the Detroit Zoo,” know that you’re not only going to enjoy your visit, but, if you bring children, you just may be helping to shape their future.

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