Table for Two

Birds are notoriously good at hiding illness until the very last moment. A casual stroll past the ill and healthy birds show very little to distinguish between them, even in the Intensive Care Unit.

But then sometimes you get a bird you know is really sick, and your heart aches for them. I held a penguin so bony and frail, I thought for sure he was going to die in my arms as he got his injections. It’s moments like those you miss the aggressive hiss and angry bite.

At the time I had wondered from how near the throes of death rehab could snatch the birds. I’m happy to say within a few weeks the penguin I’d held was standing quite beautifully with bright eyes and glossy, black feathers in the outdoor pen, a sign of being on the mend.

As birds’ strength increases so, too, does their appetites, often with amusing results. I’ve seen several Hartlaub’s Gulls (those small, white birds you see everywhere) walk right past their chopped fillets and swallow a whole fishtail instead, waddling around with their necks bulging out to three times their size. The first time it happened I thought the bird was going to choke to death, but no, it just sits there like a satisfied opportunist, digesting the meal that was meant for the much larger Kelp Gulls.


Hartlaub’s Gulls

It’s funny to watch, but also the tiniest bit annoying. A lot of work goes into preparing the fish for all the different species at the center. When the birds eat another one’s food it almost feels like they’ve sent back an inferior dish at a restaurant, despite it all pretty much being some form of sardine. Mr. Omar used to hate picking me up at the end of the day because I basically reeked of sardines with various degrees of freshness. It doesn’t take many days in penguin / gull food prep to appreciate this multifaceted, mealtime workhorse of a fish. How do I cut thee? Let me count the ways…

There are whole sardines for penguins, filleted sardines for terns, chopped sardines (complete with oozing organs) for gulls, sardines with fins removed that get blended with other stuff into a formula for underweight birds. Pretty much any way you can slice or dice a sardine, it’s done for one species or another.

The days spent working in the kitchen kind of turned me off eating sardines myself for quite a while. In truth, I’m not sure I’ve ever fully recovered, though it’s probably fine. It (maybe?) means more are left for the penguins of this fairly limited resource.

Like most things though, you learn to really appreciate the fish when it’s gone. There were a few days during my stint where I pined for the silvery fish like Poseidon with a bestial fantasy (okay, that’s way more dramatic than it was… though I did miss them quite a lot), when a fish shortage saw them replaced with bait fish and mullet. That day, I think Mr. Omar would have had me ride home on the roof if he could.

The fact that bait fish (squishy, small sardines with organs hanging from odd places) actually appeal to anything must mean the situation can be pretty desperate out in the open sea. Given terns expect their fillets spread out like a glittering mosaic with the shiny side up at the center seems to suggest we’re really spoiled for choice here. They did not feel the brunt of the crisis as their meals were upgraded to calamari, while everyone else saw their rations reduced or replaced with mullet, a smelly, gutsy fish with extra fins and a tough backbone. That fish entered the kitchen with about as much grace as an unwanted hairstyle trend, and I was glad to see the last of it.

It doesn’t surprise me much, though, that the terns avoided most of the trouble. Swift terns were hands down my favorite birds at the center. When you work with them you can sort of see they’re birds with standards. They’re balls of fluffy cuteness as chicks, beautiful as adults and juveniles with a gentle bite, but perhaps what I loved most of all is their squeaky chirps, which register at the same pitch as a dog’s chew toy. As the last wave of the shortage was being ridden out, the terns were served tiny, whole fish instead of fillets. Some birds gobbled it up; others glared at the plate before commencing what seemed to be a vehement discussion in squeaks. It was like watching a board meeting spoken in rusty tricycle and was absolutely adorable. I cannot but smile when I see that bird.


Swift terns aren’t the only birds I encountered with “unique dietary needs.” As its name suggests, the juvenile oyster-catcher was always fed shellfish instead of regular fish. When he first showed up as a sick, little bird, he barely ate two mussels. By the time he was cleared for release he ate thirty in one day.  I’m not an expert, but I’d consider that a “healthy appetite.”


The Oystercatcher was quite a fun bird to work with. Difficult to catch, but once’s he was caught he went completely docile, so much so that a few times I thought he’d died. When it comes to being handled, most birds are far less accommodating, and they leave many a battle scar to prove it.