Enrichment v.2.0

Our dedicated staff of keepers at the Houston Zoo work tirelessly to provide novel and interesting enrichment items for our numerous animal residents. Many people are aware that enrichment helps stimulate natural behaviors, promote physical and mental well-being as well as giving our guests the opportunity to see how amazing the animals truly are. Enrichment for our animals must also be safe, and depending on the animal may also be a bit unruly or cumbersome. An excellent example of this is Tucker, a juvenile bull Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) playing with a very large log.

Tucker the Asian Elephant
Now this item brought hours of enjoyment to Tucker and our other elephants at the Houston Zoo. However, at a certain point it is time for these items to be retired. Sometimes our animals will play with an item until it is no longer safe, or until it becomes boring. At this time, it’s best to dispose of the item and find something else… or is it?

jon log


Here we have our Lions (Panthera leo) getting the opportunity to play with the very same log. Of course, a log built for an elephant can be a bit too large for a lion, so our staff have cut these sections of log to be a more appropriate size. These logs still weigh quite a bit (two animal keepers were needed to move them into the yard), but our lionesses were able to move them around with ease. In fact, they were able to throw them around without much exertion.

This time of enrichment is immensely rewarding. Not only do our lions get new toys, but they also have a very interesting smell thanks to living with our elephants for so long. We’re also recycling our enrichment items and reducing our environmental impact. While the log was no longer appropriate for our elephants, with a few modifications it becomes a wonderful new source of enrichment for our large carnivores!

Swimming Lessons!

Living in one of the warmest and most humid environments in the country, I think we can all agree that there are few things more exciting than the chance to lounge about in the pool. The refreshing fun and social bonding experience is not only fun for people – many of our animals enjoy the same treatment!

Tupelo (left) and Baylor (right), playing in their kiddie pool


Here we have Tupelo and Baylor, Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) calves housed here at the Houston Zoo. As you can clearly see, both of these young elephants are enjoying a soak in an inflatable kiddie pool. This gives keepers the opportunity to monitor their progress swimming before they get the opportunity to tackle a much larger, deeper pool.

The two calves have since graduated from kiddie pools, and can regularly be found enjoying the 80,000 gallon pool in the new elephant yard (the newest addition to the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat). However, this picture is absolutely too cute not to share and is sure to help cool anyone off on a warm day.

Want to see more of our elephants? The Houston Zoo has a webcam in the new elephant yard, broadcasting 24/7. Our herd of elephants spends most of the time in this yard (though they do come out of the yard for their morning bath, in case of inclement weather and just so keepers can clean up!). The elephant webcam can be checked here.

Enrichment for a Fierce Hunter

The Houston Zoo is home to one of the widest varieties of animal species that can be found in the country. Peaceful grazers and fierce hunters can be found side-by-side, and it is the responsibility of animal keepers to provide appropriate enrichment for these animals.


Swift Fox
Our Swift Fox

Here we have one of our (not so) fierce hunters… a swift fox (Vulpes velox)! While these small canids have a varied diet, small animals such as crickets and grubs are certainly favored food items. To increase the difficulty of obtaining the prey, these items can be placed in cardboard boxes or mixed among shredded paper to give our animals the opportunity to hunt their food. This gives the animals the chance to exercise both their minds and bodies, and the ability to act on their natural instincts.

Items such as boxes and paper are just a few of the items utilized by animal keepers here at the Houston Zoo to better the lives of our animals. Interested in helping out? Our enrichment team has a list of items regularly in demand, which can be found here. Come see our Swift Fox in the McGovern Children’s Zoo!

Polly Want a… Paintbrush?

One of the most rewarding aspects of being an animal keeper at the Houston Zoo is the opportunity to interact with so many visitors who are continually impressed by the wide array of behaviors our animals exhibit. On any given day it is possible to see animals eating, playing, napping, bathing, running, jumping, swimming… and painting? 

Rainbo, the Eclectus Parrot
Rainbow the Eclectus Parrot Painting

Indeed, several of the animals at the zoo have demonstrated themselves to be talented artists. This is Rainbo, a male Eclectus Parrot found in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo. As we can all plainly see, Rainbo is quite the accomplished artist. He is able to utilize a variety of techniques to create outstanding and unique works. 

Some pose the question: Why painting? After all, you will not find a single keeper who will tell you that these animals can be found painting on canvas in the wild. However, animals readily problem-solve and socialize in the wild; keepers are able to help provide for the well-being of our animals by providing them necessary outlets for these crucial behaviors. Getting the paint to the canvas is a “problem” that results in much-desired treat food items (for a parrot like Rainbo, these food items could include a variety of greens, fruits and vegetables). Furthermore, some animals (such as parrots) benefit from a bit of special attention. 

Keepers at the zoo work hard to ensure the overall well-being of the animals under our care. Painting provides numerous benefits for a variety of species, and keepers closely supervise the interaction of the animals in these instances to maintain a positive experience?

Interested in having an animal masterpiece of your very own? Learn more about animal paintings here. Animal paintings from the Houston Zoo help to support a range of conservation efforts!

12 Days of Grub: Day 12 – Twelve Flamingos Flocking

On the Twelfth Day of Grub, your zoo gift will help to feed…Twelve Flamingos Flocking, Eleven Meerkats Mobbing, Ten Chimps a Chasing, Nine Fruit Bats Flying, Eight Giraffes a Galloping, Seven Snakes a Slithering, Six Mole-rats Mining, Five Golden Frogs, Four Calling Birds, Three Wild Dogs, Two Grizzly Bears, and Darwin the Cassowary! CLICK HERE to read them all!

Chilean Flamingos Feeding at the Houston Zoo


Here at the Houston Zoo, one of the most beautiful sights is our large flock of Chilean Flamingos. These brightly-colored birds are social, vocal and highly interesting. Amazingly, the size of our flock is nothing compared to the spectacular gatherings these birds would naturally form in the wild; Chilean Flamingos are known to form flocks numbering into the thousands!


Flamingos have grooves along the edges of their beaks used for filtering small food items from the water

Without question, one of the most intriguing aspects of these unique birds is the way they feed. Flamingos have a specialized beak designed to help “filter” small plants and animals out of the water, which are then consumed and metabolized to create the striking pink coloration! Flamingos will take in a mouth full of water (along with whatever happens to be in the water), and then use their tongue to push all the water through special grooves on their beak. The result is a mouthful of food that these birds will then eat!

Here at the Houston Zoo, our flamingos are fed a variety of different pelleted diets (depending on the time of year and their current metabolic needs). These pellets are made to be nutritionally complete, which could easily help contribute to the fact that several of our flamingos are in their forties and fifties!  Our flamingos also receive krill, a small species of shrimp that is relished as a treat.

A large group of animals can prove to be ravenous; Chilean Flamingos are no exception. Our flock of birds readily eats through 50+ cups of pelleted diet per day. In addition, 5lbs of krill per week are consumed by our flamingos. When temperatures hit lows in the winter, these amounts are increased to keep up with the metabolic needs of these amazing birds.

Give the Gift of Grub by December 31 to help provide our flamingos and the rest of the Zoo’s 6,000 animal residents with all the tasty and nutritious grub they need to stay happy and healthy in the New Year! 

Thank you to TXU Energy for generously matching the first $25,000 in donations this year!

12 Days of Grub: Day 4 – Four Calling Birds

On the Fourth Day of Grub, your zoo gift will help to feed…Four Calling Birds (Kookaburras to be exact), Three Wild Dogs, Two Grizzly Bears, and Darwin the Cassowary! CLICK HERE to read them all!

Blue-winged Kookaburra

Anyone who has watched a television show or movie filmed in a tropical location has undoubtedly heard the call of a Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaguineae). While these birds are only found in certain areas of Australia and New Zealand, the call of this bird has become synonymous with untamed wilds and is often added to the soundtrack to create a more “natural” feel. Less melodic but much more visually-striking, our Blue-winged Kookaburras (Dacelo leachii) are also favorites amongst our guests.

The call of a kookaburra may in fact be one of the most interesting things about these birds, with a great deal of myth associated with the vocalization. Aboriginal legend tells us that the Kookaburra is a messenger for the Earth, using a powerful call to alert the Earth of the lighting of the great fire in the sky. In actuality kookaburras will call for a variety of reasons (including territoriality and excitement), and these early morning calls are typically used to assert territorial boundaries. However, this myth does indicate the majesty of the call and the reverence it has inspired.

However, kookaburras have a great many other interesting attributes. While they may appear somewhat fluffy and cuddly, these birds are in fact accomplished predators. Kookaburras consume large food items by beating the prey against a rock or log to break down bones and make the food item easier to swallow.

Laughing Kookaburra

At the Houston Zoo, our birds receive a wide variety of food items to keep them interested in their food and also ensure their nutritional well-being. Our birds eat mice, chicken chicks, anoles (small lizards), crickets, mealworms, smelt, walking sticks and a specialized ground meat diet to ensure optimum feather condition! In the course of a month, these four birds can eat:

  • 50 Mice
  • 50 Anoles
  • 16 Chicken Chicks

A variety of insects are also readily accepted by these ravenous birds. Our Keepers at the Houston Zoo also perform regularly-scheduled feedings so that our guests can learn even more about these fascinating birds. Our Laughing Kookaburras and Blue-winged Kookaburras are on-exhibit daily at Birds of the World, a large outdoor area showing off some of our most interesting feathered residents!

Give the Gift of Grub this holiday season to help provide tasty meals for our Kookaburras and all of the animals at the Houston Zoo!  Between now and December 31, TXU Energy has generously agreed to match all donations, up to $25,000 total, so your gift could go TWICE as far.  That’ll give our birds something to call about.

Animal Enrichment: Well, They Certainly Have Something to Say About That…

People like to watch animals actively engaged in their environment – it’s true. It’s my opinion that natural behaviors are so inviting because they create the feeling of being somewhere special. Particularly when observed in the presence of our beautifully kept and planted grounds, animals presenting natural behaviors gives the feeling of being somewhere “wild.”

For our part, keepers do our best to encourage a variety of natural behaviors. Not only is it beneficial for our guests to see the amazing natural behaviors that cause us to love every minute of our jobs, it’s enormously beneficial to provide for the mental and physical wellness of our animals by providing enrichment opportunities. Did you know that an effective enrichment program can help to stabilize fluctuating weight, help with mild health concerns and even encourage breeding in some species? It really is that important to the overall well-being of our animals.

These are our Grey-winged Trumpeters (Psophia crepitans) utilizing a basic puzzle feeder. Such items are wonderful because they make enriching animals a much more viable possibility. The simple fact is that there are only so many hours in a day, and when keepers are responsible for such a diverse animal collection (more than 800 avian residents in our bird department, alone!) such readily prepared items are nothing less than magical.

Enrichment Day at the Houston Zoo is Saturday, September 24th.  This is a great opportunity to come and join in the fun.  Come out and see all of the animals enjoying special enrichment, hear keeper chats and loads of  fun games for kids of all ages!  Enrichment Day celebrates the meaning and joy of enriching our animals and visitors!

Find your favorite animals and see what they’re wishing for at Amazon.com. Then just sit back, shop, click and send your animal of choice a wonderful gift to enrich their life!  They really do appreciate it and so does the Houston Zoo!

Animal Enrichment: Who Does the Parrot Want to Call?

As a child, I absolutely hated macaroni art. The act of gluing food parts to a sheet of paper seemed to me designed as some form of punishment, designed to punish me by having small pieces of pasta glued up and down my arms. Many other craft activities seemed to be along a similar thread, a waste of time with no real purpose. Being a zookeeper, I’ve had to re-evaluate my feelings because of a need to enrich a wide variety of animals.

 Animal care staff are fairly crafty people – we have to be. The simple fact of the matter is that a variety of crafts open up doors to creating new ways to interact with our animals and encourage natural responses. Being able to create our own enrichment has a variety of benefits:

 1) Purchasing enrichment pieces for all of our animals is simply not an option. With an animal collection numbering into the thousands, keepers at the Houston Zoo utilize their craftiness to come up with our own unique enrichment ideas for a fraction of the cost of purchased items.

 2) Items to be purchased are not necessarily meant for the wide array of exotic animals that are housed at the Houston Zoo. While there are a variety of objects available to encourage interaction, they are typically designed with more domestic species in mind. Designed objects can be created with a variety of animals in mind.

 3) Utilizing our creativity is a way for keepers to create many more nrichment opportunities than would normally be available. We can decide to change enrichment items to focus on different sensations or different natural behaviors.


This is our Pesquet’s Parrot (Psittrichas fulgidus) interacting with a phone book. As a novel item, this enrichment encourages a great deal of natural curiosity and observation. This bird is clearly observing the item from every feasible angle before finally reaching out to explore further using the nerve-laden tongue of a parrot.


 Want to help further? We also have a wish list of items that many people throw away in the course of their day; some days, these few small items can make all the difference in the world in helping to create a “new” zoo everyday

Enrichment Day at the Houston Zoo is Saturday, September 24th.  This is a great opportunity to come and join in the fun.  Come out and see all of the animals enjoying special enrichment, hear keeper chats and loads of  fun games for kids of all ages!  Enrichment Day celebrates the meaning and joy of enriching our animals and visitors!

Find your favorite animals and see what they’re wishing for at Amazon.com. Then just sit back, shop, click and send your animal of choice a wonderful gift to enrich their life!  They really do appreciate it and so does the Houston Zoo!

Bird Brained Challenge: The Results!

First and foremost, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to everyone who took the time to participate in our Bird Brained Challenge. With over 70 participants (not to mention views on the zoo’s blog page numbering into the thousands for the duration of the challenge), there can be no questioning that bird lovers can most certainly be found in Houston – a fact that makes perfect sense, considering that the Houston Zoo has one of the largest and most diverse avian collections in the country. Our wonderful readers have proven that they are not “bird brained” at all!


I am very proud to point out that we have a wide array of supporters here at the Houston Zoo, many of whom participated in our challenge. Without the support of our valuable guests we would not be able to engage in such a variety of conservation and education endeavors. Therefore, we would like to offer an Honorable Mention to the following participants who provided answers for every single clue.

  • Benjamin Auces
  • Melissa Fellers
  • Jade Hems
  • Frances Karels
  • Nancy Padua
  • Brenda Stanley

Next, we have several contestants who demonstrated their impressive avian intelligence by answering every single clue correctly! We have decided to offer these contestants a consolation prize – a selection of magnets, painted by a variety of ducklings raised this year!

  • Margaret Atmar
  • Liz Turner
  • Jennifer Sullivan

Of course, we understand that everyone is concerned with the announcement of our winner. I’m sorry to say that we did not have a winner for our contest – we had TWO! Our two grand prize winners tied in points after answering every single post correctly. For this reason, we have decided to award both of our winners a painting done by ducklings raised at the Houston Zoo this year! Let’s have a hearty round of applause for:

  • Alaina Sheehy
  • Mary Reeves

This announcement of winners marks the end of our Bird Brained Challenge. We hope that all of our contestants had fun and learned something! Here at the Houston Zoo, our continuing goal is to “provide a fun, unique, and inspirational experience fostering appreciation, knowledge, and care for the natural world.”

We invite you to come and visit us SOON, and see all the birds from this contest, and more!

Bird Brained Challenge: Answer #5

This bird is the Rainbow Lorikeet!

Rainbow Lorikeets are an energetic and playful species that we are happy to have on display at the Houston Zoo. These bright and colorful birds are commonly classified with regard to their varying coloration. Green-naped Lorikeets are just one example of this highly-variable parrot.

Lorikeets of all types have a variety of adaptations for their specialized diet, and Rainbow Lorikeets are no exception. These small parrots eat a variety of soft fruits, but an important component of their diet is the nectar of a variety of plant species. Lorikeets have modified papillae (structures on the tongue) that resemble the bristles of a paintbrush. This adaptation makes these birds uniquely suited to consume plant nectar. Their scientific genus (Trichoglossus) actually refers to this adaptation.

Like most parrot species, the Rainbow Lorikeet can readily be found in the pet trade – and like most parrot species, the Rainbow Lorikeet is typically not regarded as a good choice for a pet. Parrots are loud and messy birds that require great amounts of social interaction to compensate for the interaction the bird would otherwise experience in the wild. Veterinarians specializing in aviculture are not as common as those treating mammalian companion animals, making care of these animals more difficult and potentially expensive. Furthermore, an abundance of information on the care of these animals exists in easy to access sources such as the internet – unfortunately, this information is rarely consistent from one source to another (and sometimes it is downright wrong). Instead, we encourage guests to take advantage of the chance to see and learn more about our parrots at the Houston Zoo, which includes the intriguing Pesquet’s Parrot and the critically endangered St. Vincent Amazon. In this way, guests can experience the wonder of watching parrots interact with a variety of stimuli, knowing that these animals are well cared for by the trained staff of one of the largest and most diverse avian collections in the country!

Photo by Leigh Spencer

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