Friday, November 28, 2008

The Bittern in the Baltimore Aquarium

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we went with Alex and his delightful girlfriend Kristen to the Baltimore Aquarium. I had not been there for a number of years, so I was glad for the excuse. Happily we didn't encounter too many school groups, and at points we even had exhibits to ourselves.

I was pleased that the aquarium has been so well maintained in recent years; I was also delighted to see some new exhibits, such as the recreation of Australian wetland habitats. We marveled at the birds and monkeys and oohed appropriately at the more cuddly creatures (not tarantulas, which always make me shiver).

We were especially bemused, however, at a bittern (see photo) who had positioned himself strategically along a walkway so humans could pet him. At first, we worried he might be ill; after all, wild birds rarely offer themselves up for voluntary cuddling. We also fretted that he might contract some virus from all those human hands or that some perverse soul might seize the opportunity to harm him. Rod informed a guard of our concerns which, it appears, were for naught. The story is this: Mr. Bittern, at some point in his captivity, decided that he liked the companionship of humans more than birds. He took up residence along the walkways, perching on ledges where human hands could easily reach down and smooth his feathers. Repeatedly his keepers moved him to remote locales within the aviary, only to be defeated by Mr. Bittern's stubborn refusal to dwell among his mates. Finally, the aquarium capitulated, permitting this gregarious avian to socialize with humans but ensuring his safety through carefully positioned security cameras.

I watched Mr. Bittern teach his admiring throng the proper way to pet him: between the wings, on the shoulders. He particularly liked a gentle stroking motion. Any hand that attempted to get near his face or neck was met with a steely glare and a sharp peck. "Yes, you can pet me," he seemed to say, "but only on my terms." Mr. Bittern was the topping on an already swell day.

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