Cold weather hardly phases the chirping and clucking birds at the Pioneer Park Aviary. Even the naked-necked turken chickens take below freezing temperatures in stride, without a scarf.
"The birds acclimate to the cold," a smiling Joanna Lanning said. "We also have heat sources and shelters. The pheasant houses have heated interiors."
And its easy to believe that Lanning, the aviary’s caretaker, would share the coat off her back with any bird she saw shivering.
After all, the aviary’s letterhead bears her motto: We Don’t Just Care For Birds. We Care About Birds.
And the birds appear to comprehend, especially by the way they flock to her when she spreads out grain and greens.
The greens, by the way, are donated by the Rose Street Safeway Store.
"They give us greens that are past their shelf life, and they have done so for 15 years, through several store managers," Lanning said. "It’s wonderful for the birds and rabbits to have some fruits and vegetables."
One bird in particular shows a special fondness for Lanning. Shelley, a paradise shellduck, has forged a strong bond with Lanning and Dena Krause, who works weekends, and volunteer Jean Pennington.
"Shelley is my favorite," Lanning said. "She’s been here probably 10 years. She came in as an adult bird and bonded to us. We had to find a new home for her mate because they didn’t get along. He got so frustrated that he would attack the other birds."
Stanley, the mate, now lives with a family in Walla Walla.
"When no one is around, I pick Shelley up, and she puts her head against my neck." Lanning said.
To demonstrate, she hugs the bird, and it snuggles against her.
With other people around, the jealous Shelley lowers her neck, squawks and butts them in the ankles with her bill.
"She will even attack the fence if people stand against it and talk to me," Lanning said. "But when she molts, she ignores me for two months because she doesn’t feel very well."
Lanning also has a soft spot for the ruddy ducks.
"I just like them because they have an attitude," she said.
While the aviary facility provides food, shelter and loving care for foreign and native birds, it now places more emphasis on the natives.
"We have other species, and we probably always will have, but we are concentrating now more on the native (American) migratory waterfowl," Lanning said. "We have incubation and rearing facilities for the birds, so we do sell or trade our offspring to help generate revenue. We raise about 100 babies a year and ship them all over the United States (to reputable facilities)."
An Emperor goose, for example, sells for $250 and several other species sell for $100 or more each.
Some new arrivals and more unusual birds are the cheer pheasants and trio of red golden pheasants.
Lanning has also ordered a sign for the naked-necked turken chickens. It will assure visitors that the birds’ wrinkled, red necks are normal and not a sign of disease or illness.
Some species at the aviary have been placed on the endangered list, including the nene (Hawiian goose), the laysan teal and the cheer pheasants. Special permits are required for them.
While the weather causes few problems for the birds, predators raised major havoc last year.
"We’ve had trouble with feral cats since the storm damage of early in 2009," Lanning said. "It created weaknesses in the net system. We try to keep it closed up, but we have holes. We’ve lost close to 20 smaller birds. We had a large number of bobwhite quail, four chukars and three red golden hens that the cat preyed on."
Then a mink ravaged the rearing area. "That’s where we had our offspring, so they were bigger birds," Lanning said. "It came in and attacked and killed our ruddy ducks and hooded mergansers, which were the more valuable birds that we raised this year. It just slashed and killed them."
She estimated a monetary loss of approximately $1,500 and an emotional loss at much higher.
Lanning said in her 15 years at the aviary, she has seen many improvements, and she looks forward to seeing more.
"We may be able to change some things in order to create a safer environment for the birds and possibly have some different display areas," Lanning said. "We’re looking for a private firm that specializes in avian or aviculture design to work with a local firm and our engineers to create a different netting system."
She said a new system should handle the snow load better, provide more safety and require less time and expense for repairs.
After feeding the birds inside the netting, Lanning spread grain for the wild birds in the park. They rushed on foot and wing to meet her.
Lanning pointed out a "beautiful domestic goose hen" recently dumped at the park.
"We often get chicks and rabbits after Easter that nobody wants anymore," Lanning said. "We try to find homes for them. I keep a list, but it would be easier if people just advertised that they have a pet to give away. Usually someone will take them."
Patty Crabtree helped Lanning capture the dropped-off domestic goose, and Crabtree took it home to live with her other pet goose and ducks.
Lanning expressed justifiable pride at the quality of care provided at the aviary.
"We’re fortunate (in avoiding illness among the birds) because we keep such strict standards of hygiene and health," she said. "That’s because we’re vet inspected, sometimes twice a year, because of the programs that we’re enrolled in, and because of the inspections we have in order to get our licenses.
"We have a very low mortality rate from illness or disease," she said. "Yet, this has been a very unusual year for the predators.
Despite the harsh weather, December turned out to be good to birds at the Pioneer Park Aviary.
"We’re very thankful for all of the support the aviary received this year," Lanning said. ?"The Walla Walla Valley Lions and the College Place Garden Club presented us with a pre-Christmas gift of $2,000 from their fund-raising efforts that we greatly appreciated
"We will use this gift for a special aviary need in 2010," she added.