The most memorable encounter we had on a recent visit to the San Diego Zoo wasn’t the Golden Eagle, Andean Condor or even the African Lion that delivered a ferocious roar just as we walked up. It was a Hooded Oriole that hung around us singing throughout our lunch stop.
We spent a day at the park as a part of our visit to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance that has grown into a powerhouse of research, based at its Safari Park outside the city. We couldn’t pass up the chance to see the zoo’s original downtown location with its storied collection of exotic birds from all over the world.
But an odd thing happened as soon as we arrived. We couldn’t help but get distracted by all the wild birds that have taken up residence all over the grounds, from hummingbirds to egrets and herons to all manner of songbirds, including the bright yellow-and-black oriole that joined our lunch on a treetop patio overlooking the zoo.
As we made our way around the sprawling grounds to visit the exhibits, we kept our eyes open for wild birds attracted by the zoo’s rich landscaping and plentiful water and food supply. Some seemed to enjoy flaunting their freedom around their caged relatives.
A Great Egret perched right at the top of the condor enclosure. One stop over, a Rufous Hummingbird, small enough to do as it pleased, kept landing right on the metal wires, half in and half out.
The lion’s roar echoed through his section of the zoo, but the California Towhees didn’t seem to see any threat. They perched on the trees within lunging distance of the big cat, suggesting he and his mate were getting all the meat they needed delivered by the zookeepers.
We even came across a couple of species we hadn’t seen before. Looking much like its eastern cousins, a Bewick’s Wren danced around the outside of the bird section, an impressive string of aviaries with all manner of international species. Several of the hummingbird species were new to us.
We’d seen the Hooded Oriole a week earlier as soon as we arrived at California’s southeastern edge. But this lunch visit was entirely different, a close-up, personal encounter as he hung from a branch next to us, then circled around to other stops and returned over and over to that prime branch.
Don’t get us wrong: The zoo’s official collection is one of the world’s best, and it’s hard to beat such stars as the elephants to rhinos. But the visit reminded us of the appeal and delight that common birds provide, even up against stiff competition. It helped make the day at the zoo one of the memorable visits on our trip chasing birds around the hemisphere.
Correction: An earlier version of this post identified the Hooded Oriole as a Bullock’s Oriole. While they look similar, we should have noticed the difference. Our apologies.