Let's Talk About Birds: Cape shelducks

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This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.

Visitors to the National Aviary love Penguin Point, the immersive exhibit showcasing a flock of more than a dozen endangered African penguins. People never tire of watching our penguins through underwater viewing windows as they "fly" through the water, trailing streams of silvery air bubbles behind them. But even though all eyes are on them, penguins aren't the only birds that live at Penguin Point. Just what are those two reddish-brown ducks, and why are they in there?

They are female cape shelducks, and like our penguins, they are native to South Africa -- in fact, they are named for the Cape of Good Hope. All seven of the world's shelduck species have taxonomic characteristics of both ducks and geese; in fact, female shelducks quack like a duck, but the males honk like a goose!

Unlike most other ducks, which build their nests on the ground or in tree cavities, cape shelducks build their nests underground in the abandoned burrows of African penguins and other animals, such as aardvarks, jackals and African porcupines. Usually male ducks, called drakes, are more brightly colored and strongly patterned than the females, or hens. But cape shelducks have reverse sexual dimorphism, which means hens actually have more conspicuous plumage than the drakes, and courtship roles are reversed, too, with the hens vying for the drakes' attention.

If you'd like to learn more about ducks, flock to the National Aviary on Sept. 28 for our first "Quacktacular." It's our way of celebrating the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, because the festival kicks off with a giant floating yellow rubber ducky on the river at Point State Park. "The Rubber Duck Project," according to Florentijn Hofman, the Netherlands artist who created it, is "an oversized friendly, floating, four-story-high Rubber Duck [that] can help reconnect people with their forgotten childhoods."

On Sept. 28, the National Aviary plans to give the first 100 visitors a chance to reconnect with their childhood by launching a small yellow rubber ducky into the Penguin Point pool. The toy ducks will provide enrichment for our real ducks and penguins, and it should be a lot of fun to watch their reactions. That's just one of several special duck-themed activities planned for the day. They're all free with regular admission, so you won't even have to say what the hen duck said when she asked for a lipstick at the store: "Just put it on my bill."

For the days' full schedule and additional details, visit www.aviary.org.



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