Sunday, April 1, 2012

Birds of the Rainforest Van

Mickey waves to his audience.

With the multitudes of critters you can see at The Living Planet Aquarium, it's hard to believe that there are even more animals being cared for behind the scenes. Those who participate in the aquarium's Penguin Encounter program are brought into a quiet back area and introduced to a group of birds with a special mission. Dusty the African Gray Parrot, Mickey the Eclectus Parrot, and Mingo the Blue and Gold Macaw are trained specifically to take part in the aquarium's Rainforest Van program. 

Mingo shows off his wingspan.
Education staff and a selection of birds travel in the Rainforest Van three times per week to second and third grade classes in the Wasatch area. Using rainforests as the theme, the programs cover elements of the required curriculum for each grade. For second graders, the subjects of the lesson are weather and food chains, while third graders learn about the layers of the rainforest and the difference between living and nonliving things.

For both, the program begins with a map lesson to show the students where rainforests are located. Hands-on, interactive activities engage them in learning about the main concepts. At the end, the birds make their appearance, to the delight of the students. The birds are trained to display natural behaviors, such as extending their wings, hanging upside down, and cracking open nuts. Dusty is particularly good at demonstrating a bird's ability to mimic. The students especially love it when he makes sounds like a UFO.

Last year, the Rainforest Van introduced 9,745 students from 106 different schools to the wonder of the rainforest and some of its most charismatic inhabitants. And the birds? They enjoy the program almost as much as the students, being lavished with attention and having a chance to show off their abilities to an adoring audience.

Dusty hangs upside down.

The Rainforest Van program is free to schools. Funding and support is generously provided by Salt Lake County's Zoos, Arts, and Parks, the Utah State Office of Education, and Informal Science Education Enhancement.

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