Kristen Bauman nearly has a Snow White moment when several colorful lorikeets attempt to land on her head, shoulder and outstretched little fingers. But the 4-year-old resorts to a Tippi Hedren-like dodge, dumping her bird food, when she decides a close encounter with these new feathered friends is more than she can take.
Three-year-old Alec Bongard, however, happily lets a lorikeet use his shock of red hair as a perch. His giggles don't faze the bird as it crawls from his right hand, across his neck and down his left arm.
"We have a cockatiel at home," says Debby Bongard, explaining her son's bravery.
The children are among the first visitors to the Lorikeet Forest, an exhibit that opened this month at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.
"I love to see the kids' faces when they come in here and realize they can actually touch the animals," says Beci Blue, the aviculturalist in charge of the new aviary, the first permanent exhibit installed since the aquarium's opening in 1998.
Kids aren't the only ones driven to giggles and delight by the parrot-like birds. In fact, it's advisable to have a camera ready when stepping into this 5,200-square-foot man-made forest.
Becky Lee, visiting from Arizona with her husband and three children, manages to operate a video camera with one hand while a bird climbs on the other and still another lorikeet settles on her head.
"This is great to be able to interact," Lee says afterward, adding that the family has been bird watching in the wild and put bird seed out at home, but "never had anything like this."
But what are birds doing in an aquarium? One reason is that lorikeets are an important part of the ecosystem in the Pacific and play a key role in the diversity of flora and fauna on the islands and coastal lowlands. Another reason is that, in surveys, people have requested more interactive exhibits--successful at other aquariums and zoos--at the Long Beach aquarium, a spokesperson says.
Blue says that interacting with the lorikeets offers an educational opportunity for children.
"Interaction with the birds allows kids to create their own sense of the importance of these animals in the wild. Here they [can] develop an understanding of the need for conservation of the animals and surrounding lands."
About 50 lorikeets between 3 and 6 months old live in Lorikeet Forest; eventually about 140 will be housed here. Two of the 53 lorikeet species are represented: the "rainbow" lorikeets, brilliantly colored in bright greens, reds, blues, yellows and purples, and the "perfects," smaller birds whose feathers are various shades of green. Thirteen lorikeet species are endangered; the two here are not among them.
Plants from the birds' native Australia fill Lorikeet Forest, but there's no way they can sustain all the birds, because each lorikeet can suck through 30 flowers a minute. So visitors can purchase little cups of nectar for $1 to take into the forest. The sweet mixture is made up of 55 ingredients, including vitamins, bee pollen and amino acids that the birds would get in the wild.
It doesn't take much coaxing by visitors to draw the attention of the birds, because they seem to recognize the plastic cups. They have no fear of humans, because they were all born in the United States and hand-fed.
"That's where they get their friendly disposition," says Blue, who knows most of the birds by name. "If they lived in the wild, they wouldn't be nearly this friendly."
Friendly is an understatement. Even if you venture into the aviary empty-handed, the birds are apt to pay you a visit. Displacing one is as simple as creating an alternate perch with your finger and sending it on its way.
"These two are brother and sister," Blue says as a matching pair drop in side-by-side on the shoulder of one woman.
"I know these two," says Barbara Goldberg, as the siblings take turns tugging on a gold hoop dangling from her left lobe. "They've been frequent visitors to my ear."
Lorikeets are, Blue confirms, extremely playful. That's why assorted balls, bells and toys are kept in the holding cages inside the forest, where the newest birds are slowly introduced to the general population.
Grants provided most of the funds to build the Lorikeet Forest. Refinancing earlier this year alleviated many of the aquarium's previous financial difficulties, according to a spokesperson. Problems arose after plans for redevelopment of the surrounding area stalled.
In August the aquarium also received a $250,000 grant from the Economic Development Administration for future expansion. In May 2002, the aquarium hopes to open Explorers Island, an interactive shark exhibit.
Lorikeet Forest, Aquarium of the Pacific, 100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach. 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Included in aquarium admission: $16.95; $13.95 seniors; $9.95 ages 3 to 11. Call (562) 590-3100 or go to http://www.aquariumofthepacific.org.