Staffers winterize every October to keep the birds and mammals and reptiles safe in the cooler temperatures, but this weekend is something out of the ordinary, with extended below-freezing temps.
To deal with the cold weather, “the overwhelming majority of the animals will be inside,” said Rachel Davis, director of communications. “These temperatures are unusual for us, but as a team we always have plans in place for weather events.”
Lauren Wilson, curator of birds, came to Zoo Atlanta from San Antonio and Corpus Christie, where the she had to worry more about hurricanes than freezing. But either situation can cause trouble for animals in human care.
Birds in particular are susceptible to frosty weather, especially the tropical species such as the southern ground hornbill (familiar from its role in “The Lion King”), usually found in warm Central Africa.
Atlanta’s hornbill, Zasu, was already inside her shed, showing nesting behavior, while her brother, Gumby, walked around outdoors with a mouthful of tasty chicken, periodically trying to feed his sister.
An electrical heater, safely out of reach of the birds, radiated warm rays toward a favorite outdoor perch. In a habitat next to Zasu and Gumby were Anubis and Amana, two lappet-faced vultures in the midst of building an enormous nest out of twigs.
Natives of central and southern Africa, these Cessna-sized scavengers are accustomed to breeding in that hemisphere’s summertime, which occurs right around now. They haven’t changed their routines, so the zoo encourages them to build their nursery inside their nearby shed, to keep any potential offspring from freezing.
The vultures are accustomed to flying at high altitude, and thus are quite cold-tolerant. Generally they are given the choice whether to stay indoors or out, but this weekend both the vultures and the hornbills will stay inside for safety.
Flamingos are often associated with Florida, but unlike their Floridian cousins, Zoo Atlanta’s flamingos are not tropical creatures. They are native to Chile, and are often found in the Andes mountains, at elevations up to 15,000 feet.
But even these burly creatures will stay inside during the cold snap. Wilson said they are concerned not only about the prospect of frostbite also about flamingos slipping and falling on frozen puddles.
A few creatures will have the option of staying outdoors. Some of the Georgia native turtles, including box turtles and gopher tortoises, will get extra piles of leaves for burrowing and some will dig into the wet banks of their habitat.
The alpacas, Tuscany, Warrior and Smurf, who grow their own high performance outerwear, will have a choice whether to hang inside or out. They could be joined in the evening air by their South American neighbors Reuben and Rachel, two Patagonian maras, a kind of hare-like, long-legged 22-pound rodent.
Despite the chilly temperatures Wednesday morning, the zoo had a small crowd of hardy visitors, including Emily Getreu of Marietta and her 1-year-old, Isla, bundled in a pink quilted hoodie.
The two were taking advantage of the calm before the polar vortex, checking out the gaudy purple plumage of the Victorian crowned pigeon.
Said Getreu, the chilly weather was no problem. “It’s the warmest it’s going to be for the next three days.”