Meet our elders: a marbled godwit (at least 20 years old), black oystercatcher (at least 26 years old), a semipalmated sandpiper (at least 23 years old) and a willet (at least 32 years old). We use "at least" because all those birds arrived here as adults of an undetermined age.
Two of our common murres, which you'll find in our seabird display in the Open Sea, are at least 29 and 30 years old — and both have successfully reproduced recently. One's extraordinary because she survived an oil spill off the California coast and is still in good health — and still breeding!
"If you look at our collection en masse, we’ve got the old folks home for birds in many ways," says Dr. Mike Murray, Jane Dunaway Director of Veterinary Services. "I don’t think there are any other places with a shorebird collection that has as many old birds as we have." Their collective longevity is even more remarkable when you consider that most of our shorebirds came to us from rescue centers because they have permanent injuries that make a return to the wild impossible.
These super seniors owe their long lives to a potent potion of nutritious food, watchful guardians, skilled veterinary care and special comforts like heaters and wading pools. "Heat is good," says Senior Aviculturist Bonnie Grey. "When they're older they start getting sore and achy, just like we do."
In general, birds at zoos and aquariums tend to live longer than wild birds. No predators, better food and regular health care go a long way. They don't migrate, so they use a lot less energy. Nutritional and vitamin supplements help balance their diet too, enhancing the menu of live black worms, crickets and maggots.
"Live food is good for them," Bonnie says. "They're constantly looking for crickets and fly larvae in the sand. They're not just eating out of a dish and getting bored. They're foraging, and that in general is good for their well-being."
Dr. Mike adds that the elevated exhibit reduces stress, even though they're constantly close to human visitors. In the Aviary, they and the people are eye to eye. "You're not looking down on them," he says. "They're a lot more comfortable at your level because you’re not nearly as imposing a threat," he says.
One other factor: Our birds have the best feet in the business.
"The best thing that we’ve done for the shorebirds — which is something I'm sure the aviculturists hate — is sweeping the dune every day," Dr. Mike says.
On exhibit, shorebirds are prone to foot and leg problems, largely the result of standing on poor quality sand or other surfaces. Dr. Mike says our birds don’t have those problems because our dedicated aviculture staff, armed with whisk brooms, sifters and dustpans, meticulously sweep up debris from the swath of sand in the Aviary. Every single day.
He also praises the aviculture team's keen observation skills and familiarity with each individual. "The staff really knows each bird, so they know their normal behavior," he says. "When birds change a behavior there's an explanation for it. It may not always mean they're sick, but the team is very, very good at catching things early on, which gives us a better chance of correcting it."
While we don't take birds off exhibit for regular veterinary exams because it's stressful, Dr. Mike does examine them if they're already in the Animal Health Lab for another procedure. For example, he skillfully employs an endoscope when and where needed; he's an early pioneer and proponent of avian endoscopy.
"For birds, there's no advantage to looking sick, so they will hide signs of illness until they no longer can, and by then it's often too late," he says.
While all birds in the Aviary are used to humans watching them, that doesn't mean they let down their guard. The instinct to conceal physical weakness is too powerful; in the wild, illness leaves birds vulnerable to predators. A sick bird also threatens the entire flock, which is why healthy birds will drive away those that aren't.
Aimee said she and her team have seen our shorebirds conceal their ailments. "I've seen birds limp when they don’t know we're looking," she says. "And the minute they see us, they don't limp for a little bit. They try their hardest to hide it."
Our shorebirds benefit from the team's watchful eyes in other ways. The aviculturists can keep harassment in check, sidelining the "bully" for a few days rather than isolating the older bird, which may become disoriented in new surroundings. Plus, they have seniority!
"We're very careful of the willet," Bonnie says. "If we see a bird that's picking on her, we pull that bird and not her because she's been in there forever and she's the queen. People adore her, and she's hugely popular with the volunteer guides. She's famous for being one of our oldest birds. People always ask about the willet."
But that doesn't mean "the queen" can't take care of herself, Aimee says. "We put a young stilt on exhibit and he was chasing her," she says. "I think he did it one too many times because she turned around and got him and dragged him by his leg. She won that fight. She's still got it!"
Aimee and Bonnie say all of our birds have distinct personalities, with some more obvious — and entertaining — than others.
"If you sit there for 30 minutes to an hour you can see all this activity, all the drama, and they're constantly moving and doing something," Aimee says. "That's what makes this exhibit so much fun to watch."
Crazy about birds?
Here are more ways you can enjoy these charming animals.
- 7 a.m.–7 p.m. Pacific Time.
- the Aquarium.
- plastic pollution.