An exhilarating view from above is offered as you cross a bridge suspended over the Asian elephant enclosure. Standing atop the bridge we watched one of the zoos elephants as it rambled along the pool in its large yard, munching on straw and throwing it up onto its back with its trunk. The elephants can also be viewed at ground level through the Elephant Outpost showcasing information on elephants and their conservation.
Much work is being done for the elephants at the zoo, with the help of A Campaign to Save Asian Elephants, a program concerned with the breeding, education and scientific research to help improve the care of elephants in zoos as well as their conservation in the wild. The first part of the development consists of a complete revamping of the Elephant House which will be the largest building at the zoo and will use the eco-friendly geothermal heating. Secondly is the extensive work on their Elephant Trails which will include an Elephant Exercise Trek, an innovative trail a quarter of a mile through one of the zoos wooded areas. A seemingly simple idea, the trail will not only provide enrichment to the elephants but also helps to promote their natural behaviours as in their wild habitat they would be trekking through the forests daily.
Crossing the bridge takes you towards the Bird House. Approaching the Bird House you first come upon three mid-sized ponds surrounded with trees and other foliage. In one of these ponds we met with a darling duck family. Both mom and dad kept watch attentively as their seven young ducklings splashed in the water, waddled through the mud and played hide and seek in the reeds. Surrounding the Bird House are numerous outdoor bird enclosures. One stretch of enclosures is called the Crane Run. It is here we saw one of the National Zoo’s newest arrival. A wattled crane chick hatched on March 20th, 2011. We visited a month after this chick had hatched and it was already close to half the height of its parents, but certainly not as pretty yet with its awkward proportioned body and creamy down. Wattled cranes are the largest of the African crane species as well as the rarest, so a new individual to the population is a great success.
The next bird we encountered was the kori bustard, at 40lbs it’s the heaviest bird capable of flight but spends most of its time on the ground. One was nestled in the tall grasses of its large enclosure while the other one appeared to stand watch with its small head, fluffy neck feathers and fat body. After our visit the zoo celebrated the birth of its 50th kori bustard chick, small, speckled down and cute as a bustard can be. A strange noise distracted us away and over to the South American Run, an enclosure that houses the brilliant and beautiful scarlet ibis, the grand king vulture and the red-legged seriema. The particular bird that was making this loud noise was the red-legged seriema. This large, grey comical bird, with a sparse mohawk at the base of its orange beak was making a distinct yelping sound that can be heard from several kilometres away and was certainly getting its fellow enclosure mates ruffled and riled up.
The Smithsonian National Zoo’s Bird House was built in 1928, has had various updates throughout the years, and is similar to the Bronx Zoo with an innovative access to upper and lower viewing of the enclosures. One of the inhabitants of the Bird House is a newly hatched kiwi on display in a nocturnal (dark) enclosure. Back in 1975 the Smithsonian National Zoo was successful in being the first zoo outside of New Zealand, the kiwi’s native home, to hatch a kiwi.
Outside the Bird House, connected by an elevated path, is the Outdoor Flight Cage which was completed in 1965. This large aviary showcases various habitats, forested areas, waterfalls leading to shallow pools, hallowed out trees and rock outcroppings, all for the many different species of birds that co-habit in this environment. A meandering path takes you through the lives of mandarin and wood ducks, Indian peafowl, numerous songbirds and even high above the path sits a massive and majestic nest of the hamerkop who peer down at you from over the edge.