PLAYFUL POLLINATORS: Lorikeet Landing adds color to NC Aquarium’s educational programs

I have visited the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher about half a dozen times or more over the years. If family or friends come to town, we go to the aquarium. If we’re babysitting friends’ kids, we head to the aquarium. As one of four NC aquariums—recently ranked 16 of the top 25 aquariums in the nation by TripAdvisor—the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher houses jaw-dropping alligators, the slitheriest of snakes, countless species of frogs and turtles, birds and marine life. Fantastic educational opportunities abound when walking throughout the indoor salt marsh, touching living crustaceans and getting face-to-face time with gigantic fish in their enormous 235,000-gallon tank.

LICKING LORIKEETS: Lorikeets love nectar, which makes them good pollinators as well as beautiful. Photography by Tom Dorgan.
LICKING LORIKEETS: Lorikeets love nectar, which makes them good pollinators as well as beautiful. Photography by Tom Dorgan.

Recently, the aquarium added more to its arsenal of one-on-one animal (aquatic or otherwise) education. It started last year with the Butterfly House. I went with my mother during her visit, and we walked around in childlike delight as colorful insects fluttered about our heads and landed where they pleased. This year the butterflies have been replaced with bigger, brighter and louder creatures: lorikeets, a.k.a. lories.

Now known as “Lorikeet Landing,” the space houses 58 beautiful and colorful creatures of the parrot family. “Lorikeets are part of a 4-year, rotating, temporary exhibit,” says Robin Nalepa, Public Relations Coordinator at the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher. “Butterflies will return in 2016 and will be followed by lorikeets in 2017.”

In the wild, lories reside in the tropical forests of Australia, where deforestation is a major threat to their habitat. They’re around 10 inches tall and decorated with bold hues of green, blue, yellow, orange, red, and everything in between—a likely reason humans hunt them for illegal pet trade. Their bright plumes also make them prime targets for natural predators, such as snakes and falcons.

Like their exhibit predecessors of the Butterfly House, the birds continue the educational story of pollinators and how valuable they are to our ecosystem.

“Lorikeets don’t live in North Carolina,” Nalepa says, “but they are important pollinators, just like butterflies, bees and bats living around here. Pollinators are disappearing, and more than 90 percent of all plants need them to reproduce. Bringing visitors nose-to-beak with birds and creating a feeding opportunity creates a personal connection to the animal and nature.”

The birds’ unique brush-like tongues allow them to remove pollen and nectar from flower blossoms. Nectar is the main part of their diet and that’s why visitors can purchase a small cup for a dollar to bring into the bird house.

I picked up a cup of the sweet liquid, but before we could enter, we had to get a squirt of hand sanitizer, which visitors are also asked to use upon exiting.  “This is a safety measure for the health of the visitor and the birds,” Nalepa explains. “Healthy animals and healthy people can carry germs.”

Lorikeets are very friendly and playful, and in no way shy around people. As birds sang and played around us, we had to remain calm yet quick to move when they took a notion to race from one end of the house to another. Nevertheless, it was hard to not get giddy upon having one perch on my arm—or my head to investigate my sunglasses. They were gentle, despite having needle-like claws and sharp, hooked beaks, which they used to draw my cup closer for easier access to the nectar.

For some, an enclosed area with 50 or so birds (regardless of how colorful, cute or friendly) is not a place of happy thoughts. My husband, for example, has been pooped on four times in his life by birds, just by walking out into the world of vast space and endless toilet options for anything air born. So, the odds were decidedly not in his favor at Lorikeet Landing. But, it’s just as the sign says in the exhibit: “Poop Happens.”

For other folks, it’s (understandably) terrifying to be so close to creatures that, while small and more or less docile, have sharp beaks and the ability to dive bomb the face. Though they didn’t display any kamikaze behavior on our trip, it’s not hard to imagine once in the thick of it.

There were one or two children of varying ages who were clearly disturbed and uncomfortable being so close to the birds, and so they screamed bloody murder if one whizzed by or landed on them. Even though it’s an amazing, fun and educational experience, I recommend cautious optimism for parents. It’s really a matter of everyone (children and adults) prepping themselves for this up-close animal interaction and knowing personal limits. And arguably more important, it will help the birds enjoy the visit, too.

On the other side of the coin, some people were coaching birds onto their arms and heads with the nectar cups, cooing and making kissing sounds to sweeten up the deal. Of course, it’s fine to do so, as long as you follow the rules for the birds’ safety.

“The birds often land on arms, shoulders and heads in the pursuit of nectar,” Nalepa says. “Visitors are asked not to pet or pick up the birds, but instead allow the birds to come to them.”

The official rules of Lorikeet Landing are relatively simple: Stay on the pathway, and don’t step into the natural areas. Use hand sanitizer before entering and upon leaving. Don’t bring strollers, backpacks or large purses.

General admission to the aquarium is not required to visit Lorikeet Landing. To learn more about the exhibit and others at the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher, visit http://www.ncaquariums.com/fort-fisher.

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