For each edition of Cooee we’ll be featuring a profile on one of Taronga’s wonderful army of volunteers. The Bird Show always attracts crowds at Taronga, and as presenter Brendan Host says in his Bird Show update (see divisional updates), volunteers are a key part of the team and play a really important role in the running of the show. We caught up with Michelle Robba, who’s been volunteering at the Bird Show, to find out what she gets up to.
How long have you been volunteering at the Bird Show, Michelle?
‘I started out in April this year, but I’d been volunteering at Backyard to Bush for a year and a half before that. I’m currently doing the Certificate III in Captive Animals here at Taronga, and as part of a volunteer keeper scholarship I get to volunteer in another area – so I chose the Bird Show!’
How much time do you spend volunteering at the Bird Show?
‘I spend one day a week at the Bird Show, and another day volunteering at Backyard to Bush.’
What made you want to be a volunteer at Taronga?
‘I’ve always known from a young age that I wanted to work with animals, and that it was definitely the career path I wanted to follow. Volunteering at Taronga was a way I could expand my knowledge through hands on experience with the animals, as well as through the keepers with years of experience behind them. Volunteering somewhere that has a wide range of animals and also supports conservation was also what I was looking for. It is something I’m extremely passionate about.'
What do you like most about volunteering at the Bird Show?
‘I love being part of the Bird Show, although I work behind the scenes. I’m really passionate about training animals, and being able to watch the training sessions that most people don’t get to see is an amazing experience – especially when we go off-site to fly the birds. I’ve started to handle some of the birds, like Marco, a Carnaby’s White-tailed Black Cockatoo. They are an endangered species and it is a privilege to be able to work up close with him.’
Is there anything you don’t like about volunteering at the Bird Show?
‘Absolutely nothing at all! It’s an amazing opportunity to volunteer here at Taronga, and I love being here and involved in the show.’
What’s involved in a typical day volunteering at the Bird Show?
‘In the morning volunteers usually complete the D role, which is the cleaning of the outside enclosures and the stage where the show takes place. Then at 10am we have a practice with Phoenix, one of the Sooty Owls – I usually get to sit on the stump while she flies over my head to the perch behind me! Or sometimes we fly one of our Wedge-tailed Eagles.
‘After that it’s time to set up for the 12pm show, so I bait the stations where the birds will land on stage and help get the birds ready in the release boxes. During the show I release and catch various birds. Not usually in a typical day would you expect the birds to fly off – but it does happen! Then when the show’s over we clean up and put the birds away.
‘After lunch I normally get to practice handling the birds and make enrichment items for the birds. Enrichment is something you give the birds to change their environment and to encourage their natural behaviours. For example, browse, which are branches of native trees that are given to the parrots to encourage them to rip the bark and leaves off like they would in the wild. Or it could be something like a native flower put into a small cardboard box with shredded newspaper and sunflower seeds. It encourages them to rip it apart to get their reward, and it’s fun for both the birds and me to watch. I love doing enrichment, and have been assigned the enrichment spot as my area. After that, it’s time to get ready for the second show of the day at 3pm, and the clean up again afterwards!’
And do you have a favourite bird in the Bird Show?
‘I do love all the birds in the Bird Show for different reasons. Khan the Peregrine Falcon is amazing for his flight speed; Lesley and Konira the Andean Condors with their huge three-metre wingspan; Nangaw the Powerful Owl with her one wing, Slammer the Black-Breasted Buzzard for her hilarious egg breaking routine on stage which always makes me laugh, or Marco the White-tailed Black Cockatoo who I find adorable. I honestly can’t choose between them all!’
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned since volunteering at the Bird Show?
‘I’ve learned a lot about birds and their capabilities. I have a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo at home, so working with the birds at the Bird Show has really helped me to understand more about her, and has helped me develop my relationship with her.’
Michelle’s also a keen photographer and can often be seen around the zoo with her camera – even on her days off! The great photo of the lion on the front of this newsletter is one of hers.
I like to try and get some good shots of the birds during the Bird Show, but I also spend a lot of time photographing the other animals around the zoo as well. I’m totally dedicated to Taronga – I used to travel two and a half hours to get to the zoo when I first started volunteering! I love telling people I volunteer here, and my friends are so jealous!’