A Habitat of Their Own

African Marsh Birds at the Park

For more than 40 years, the vast habitats at the Safari Park have created just the right environment for many exotic animal species to breed successfully. Through the years, we’ve learned how to fine-tune their environment to help them succeed—even when that leads us to resize the habitat to fit their needs! Such was the case with some of our African bird species.

BY Wendy Perkins

Photography by Ken Bohn

The Ruppell’s vultures’ favorite hangout is among the large boulders.

“Right-sizing” for the Right Reasons

Longtime Park visitors might remember seeing a variety of birds, like Abyssinian ground hornbills, Ruppell’s vultures, and various storks, in the South Africa and East Africa habitats some years ago. The birds did well there, even building nests and laying eggs. In fact, the ground hornbills produced the first chick in zoological history in the East Africa exhibit. But when your neighbors include hefty rhinos, Cape buffalo, and other large hoofed animals, raising a family becomes challenging.

South African shelducks are small but spirited birds.

Created in 2010, the African Marsh habitat allows guests to view birds and mammals on both sides of the Africa Tram pathway. Besides being a great place to raise a feathered family, the habitat works well for the keepers in caring for the birds. “The birds are fed in a catch pen instead of on exhibit,” explains Lauren Wright, senior keeper at the Park. “It’s great for two reasons: first, it keeps the native egrets from stealing the birds’ food; and second, it gives us a chance to get a good, close look at the birds’ body condition.” The catch-pen feeding arrangement also allows keepers to notice if an individual is not eating. And since the birds associate the catch pen with something positive, they enter readily—making it less stressful for an individual bird when it may need to be isolated for healthcare purposes.

The goliath heron’s handsome coloring provides excellent camouflage.

Goliath Herons

It might seem that a 47- to 60-inch-tall bird would be easy to spot. But the chestnut-and-white coloring of a goliath heron helps these solitary and shy birds blend in with their surroundings. The herons in the African Marsh habitat are a bit easier to locate than their wild brethren—look for them at the pond. Many marsh birds have long legs, but because goliath herons are super-sized, their relatively longer lower limbs give them an advantage when it comes to foraging: they can wade into deeper water than other herons and access food the others cannot.

In addition to the food they get from keepers, the goliath herons “keep it real” by catching local bullfrogs that take up residence in the pond. Goliath herons are very vocal, with a repertoire of squawks, croaks, gurgles, and growls. The ones at the Park are especially vocal when it’s time to eat. “When they see you in the truck, they start calling,” says Lauren. “It is impressively loud!”

Although other species in the habitat have preferred spots, the South African shelducks enjoy the entire area.

South African Shelduck

Compared to a towering goliath heron, a South African shelduck is a petite bird. But what this species may lack in size it more than makes up for in spirit. “They’re the smallest, but they try to run the show,” says Lauren.

Indeed, the South African shelducks in the African Marsh exhibit are a force to be reckoned with—and not just by their habitat-mates. Lauren shares that as she was working in the back area of the exhibit one day, a shelduck cacophony filled the air. When she went to see what the commotion was all about, she found the shelducks and Egyptian geese in a circle, alarm-calling loudly. Surrounded by seven unhappy birds was the focus of their lambasting: a baby gopher snake! Happily, Lauren was able to rescue the harmless snake and move it out of the exhibit. The snake went on its way, ruffled feathers were smoothed, and all was right again.

A distinctive brown eye patch makes Egyptian geese easy to identify.

Egyptian Goose

Softly colored and beautifully marked, these birds were considered sacred by the ancient Egyptians. Although it looks like a goose and sounds a bit like a goose, this species is actually considered a type of shelduck. The Egyptian geese in the African Marsh habitat roam the area freely and are easy to spot.

Western Ruppell’s vultures build a platform out of sticks, then line their nest with grasses.

Western Ruppell’s Vulture

These huge vultures prefer arid spots in their native range, and in the African Marsh exhibit, that preference still holds. Our Ruppell’s vultures seem to gravitate toward the back of the habitat, and they especially prefer the rocks. The Ruppell’s vultures in this exhibit have nested and raised chicks for the past three years. It’s a long-term commitment: they incubate the eggs for about 56 days, then care for the chicks for about 4 to 5 months!

Ruppell’s vultures measure 33 to 41 inches long, weigh up to 20 pounds, and have an impressive wingspan of 7.5 to 8.5 feet. To keep the birds within the Park, keepers clip their wings on a regular basis—about every three months. Because the birds come into the catch-pen to eat, keepers are able to keep an eye on how quickly their flight feathers are growing out and can trim them as needed, no matter what the calendar says.

Fleshy folds of pink-red skin give the lappet-faced vulture its common name.

Lappet-faced Vulture

Lappet-faced vultures are easily identified by their bare pink head and fleshy folds of skin, called lappets, on each side of the neck. They are considered one of the most aggressive African birds, but ours seem to get along well with their neighbors—which may be because they don’t have to compete with them for food. In their native habitat, they often scare smaller vultures off a carcass.

On your next Park visit, be sure to take the Africa Tram tour to get a gander at the inhabitants of the “kingdom on the right.”