On climate change, water shortages and birds – a conversation with the director of the capital’s zoo

O zmianie klimatu, niedoborach wody i ptakach - rozmowa z dyrektorem stołecznego zoo

The Warsaw Zoo is an integral part of the capital’s rich history. It is home to many endangered animal species, and a place of recreation, education and culture for us. This year, the Municipal Zoological Garden named after him. Antonina and Jan Żabiński in Warsaw is celebrating its 95th birthday. I talk about adaptation to climate change, ways to cope with water shortages and love of birds with Dr. Andrzej G. Kruszewicz – director of the Warsaw Zoo, ornithologist, founder of Asylum for Birds, traveler.

Agnieszka Hobot: Climate change is being felt by everyone – especially in the summer months we get tired of heat and water shortages. Does the zoo need to make any special preparations in this regard before the summer season? How are the animals living in the garden protected?

Andrzej Kruszewicz: Zoo employees have a responsibility for animal welfare and visitor safety. We try to provide the animals with the best possible living conditions, regardless of the prevailing temperatures, shortage or excess of water. First of all, we make sure that every animal has access to drinking water. The paddocks are inspected repeatedly throughout the day to refill drinkers when necessary. To the western part, i.e. towards Hel Coast Street, due to poor infrastructure and large ungulate enclosures, we deliver water by barrel trucks. There, too, there is a greater risk of a watering can being knocked over, so the vigilance of zoo staff is also heightened.

The Warsaw zoo has a well-developed water recovery system. This is one way of dealing with deficits. We have vehicles for pumping out dirty water from penguin or seal pools to then use it to water the vegetation. It would be easier, of course, to discharge it directly into the sewer system, but our horticulturists have improved the pump-out system, thus joining the policy of saving resources.

Another way to cope with the drought is to collect rainwater. We then use it not only for watering, but also to power pools used by animals. We try to make the water circulate in a closed cycle. I’d also like to mention that on the zoo grounds, the grass is only mowed in areas designated for picnicking. Morning dew accumulates on the overgrown vegetation, which is sufficient irrigation, not only free, but also ecological.

When planning the garden’s development and new investments, we take climate change into account. But before I talk about our latest project, I’ll mention the one we didn’t do. In the 1980s. the idea to build the first oceanarium in Poland came up. It would become a timeless, multi-season money-making machine. It would ensure visitor interest and significant profit. For various reasons, we were not the first to do so. Wroclaw was faster, then Lodz and Gdynia invested. Building another oceanarium makes no sense. In retrospect, I know that it was a good thing. The costs, not only financial, of maintaining such a facility are enormous. True, they make big money, but from an environmental point of view it’s a disaster. Water and electricity consumption are gigantic and have little to do with ecology.

Now let’s return to the present. We have made decisions that will allow us to implement measures aimed at zero-carbonization of the garden. We are in the process of implementing the project: “Preparing the zoo for zero-carbon in connection with the centennial in 2028.” An important activity within this project is, of course, photovoltaics. The level of progress is high. We are also expanding the rainwater recovery system, being aware of the great role of water retention.

It is clear that water has become a scarce resource. Where we can, we treat the water to keep it circulating for as long as possible: we filter, aerate, reduce stocking rates if necessary, and as I mentioned, we water with water drained from the pools. Climate change is occurring on a global scale, it is very dynamic, although ordinary mortals do not notice it or do not want to notice it. His eyes only open during a drought or flood, only then does he see that something is wrong with the distribution of water on Earth. We act today because we don’t want to miss the moment when it will be too late. We are implementing institutional projects to protect various elements of nature, but at the zoo the most important thing is water conservation.

A.H.: Animals in the zoo live in specific conditions to which they have adapted. Can you spot any particular behaviors that are a reaction to the heat and a way to cope with it?

A.K.: The ways of coping with the lack of water and high air temperatures depend on the animal species. Those native to the African savanna are perfectly adapted to the heat. Elephants can impose layers of earth, sand to protect themselves from the sun.

With hippos it’s already a bit more difficult. They in natural conditions reside mainly in water, and in summer in Poland we have a deficit of water. The trouble is also with armored rhinos. During hot weather, these animals spend their days hidden in the water, submerged in mud, thus protecting themselves from the sun. We try to provide them with access to such a way of protection, but we are not always successful. An additional safeguard is a building where they can cool down. Nevertheless, when hiking from one place to another, the sun irritates their skin. In an effort to prevent this, animal caretakers lubricate the animals with a layer of clay to protect them from the rays.

Animals are provided, as needed, unlimited access to enclosures, sometimes even air-conditioned, pools and mud ponds, sprinklers and the freedom to decide which part of their space they want to be in. The obvious is access to fresh water, sometimes in the form of ice.

Since my passion is birds, I can’t help but mention the fascinating way to deal with the heat that storks have developed. So far, this type of activity has been observed in Africa, but unfortunately, it is increasingly seen in Poland. Storks excrete underneath themselves to cool themselves in temperatures above 30°C. They position their legs in a peculiar way, covering them with droppings that dry and turn white, providing protection from the sun.

A.H.: In an earlier issue ofWater Matters, we wrote about the impact of climate change and water shortages on bird migration. My question stems from the fact that the Warsaw zoo runs an asylum for them. As these migrations have been disrupted, have certain bird behaviors changed? Has the number of animals brought to the asylum changed? Is it related to climate, or is it unrelated?

A.K.: The asylum is a very important part of the garden for me. We invest a lot in public education and awareness, we want people to know how to help and where to look for support in this area. As a result, we are getting more birds every year. In 1998. We started with 2,000 tenants. At the moment we have exceeded the number of 7,000 birds per year.

We are also seeing an increase in species richness – 150 is the norm. We are home to birds that have flown away for the winter, such as herons and cormorants. These are the effects of climate change. We also have an expansion of acorns. These are colorful birds that used to occur in great numbers, then the population collapsed, and today you can clearly see their pressure in the north. We already have nesting colonies in Podlasie.

Another anomaly is the disappearing crabs. We don’t understand why this is happening, but we suspect problems along the hiking route. There are no such disorders in Ukraine or southern Europe. Other examples? Red kites have flown out of Poland, and now they are year-round in the west of the country. So do cormorants. They used to wander, leaving the headwaters as they froze, but now they are a constant presence. We observe these anomalies and draw cautious conclusions. The reasons can be traced not only to climate change, but also to animal feeding. That’s certainly not all. The subject is very difficult scientifically.

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A.H.: Another question is about your love for birds. Why exactly birds and why did you devote so much of your attention, publications, broadcasts to them. Where did it come from?

A.K.: It is difficult to pinpoint a specific moment when this passion emerged, a specific cause. I think I was born with it. There are more such people. Unfortunately, they are mostly men, although now I increasingly meet passionate women who once had no chance to develop such interests. A man walking alone with binoculars did not cause as much sensation as a woman. Today, fortunately, there is much more freedom and a woman bird-watching does not arouse interest.

I was born with it, but many people take up the challenge of bird watching under some stimulus. They claim, for example, that photographing birds is therapeutic for the head and body, challenging and engaging. There is a book called “On Wings.” The author – Maciej Zdziarski – interviewed people who, thanks to their passion for birds, experienced something important. It’s a fascinating list of reasons why people go one way and not another. How many people, so many reasons can motivate action.

A.H.: The last question will be a practical one, one perhaps as a warning. People often, acting in good faith, harm animals by, for example, feeding them. I would appreciate a hint on what to do and what not to do to support animals in adapting to a changing world.

A.K.: Thank you for this question. The topic is important, and unfortunately often ignored. Feeding animals in the summer is a crime. This must not be done under any circumstances. You can take care of them during cold weather, when they have difficult access to natural food. Luring birds to one place when there are no sub-zero temperatures exposes them to serious diseases.

In summer, birds, like all living organisms, need water, especially in the city, so it’s a good idea to make drinkers and take care of them by changing the water.

Stork nests where birds are at risk of electrocution can also be reported to the power plant. There are technical ways to solve this, so it’s worth trying. The irrefutable argument is that birds threaten the continuity of the electricity supply and can cause failures. It has been known for a long time that prevention is better than cure.

It’s also a good idea to protect large glass surfaces with stickers or at least soap-painted strips. For us, it’s a small loss in visibility, and birds won’t crash into them.

A.H. Thank you for the interview and your valuable guidance.

Photo source: Warsaw Zoo Archives