(photo credit: Michal Erez)
In a quiet corner and behind a set of double wooden doors is sequestered one of the least visited exhibits of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. The damp, musty pong of the marsh exhibit is usually enough to send any visitors who wander in reeling right back out again. However, those who brave the odor will find the exhibit teeming with bird life. Among the fauna and flora that live in and around the marsh is the pied avocet, a curious little bird that wades through marshes foraging for food.
The birds are easily recognized by their long, thin beaks that curve elegantly upwards, making for efficient foraging in the shallow waters at the edge of a marsh.
The name of the bird is derived from the distinctive black hood pattern that covers its head and is reminiscent of the black hoods once worn by English lawyers, or advocates. In Hebrew, however, the bird is called a saifan, meaning "fencer" and is so named because of the curious way it looks for food. The birds stick their curved beaks into the shallow marsh water and then scythe them from side to side like a swordsman.
Although they spend much of their time in the water, avocets are poor swimmers and rarely stray beyond their depth. In their natural habitat, pied avocets feed on insects. However, at the zoo their feed is one of the most complex of all the animals. The small marsh area cannot support enough insect life to feed the birds, so keepers make up an artificial feed that requires different ingredients to provide all the avocets' nutritional needs.
Avocets are nervous birds. A recent visitor to the exhibit inadvertently startled one of the birds, which attempted to flee but instead collided with the wire netting that covers the top of the enclosure. The bird's unique beak was shattered; and despite all efforts to either repair or replace it, the damaged beak eventually broke off at the middle. However, the bird has adjusted to having a beak only half its usual length and manages to feed just as well as the others in his small flock.
Although the zoo's collection of six avocets are too young to mate, keepers hope that eventually the avocets will raise young. In the meantime, the birds are happy to duel with the murky depths of the marsh.