Meet the keeper: Corrine Millar, Whipsnade Zoo

Meet the keeper: Corrine Millar, Whipsnade Zoo

Bird Keeper Corrine Millar opens up about playful pelicans, curious rockhoppers and some of the Zoo’s biggest breeding successes.

Bird keeper Corrine Millar and Whipsnade's penguins

What’s it like working with birds?
I’d never worked with birds before joining Whipsnade as a seasonal keeper, but it’s such a passion of mine now – working with them every day has completely changed my mindset. There’s so much diversity in the bird kingdom. I work with small songbirds, ostriches – our biggest birds – and everything in between: penguins, pelicans, flamingos and loads of waterfowl, ducks and geese.

What should people know about the birds at the Zoo?
How much character they have! People think birds are quite cold, but when you’re working with them you get to know their personalities: who’s playful, who’s naughty, and who rules the roost! Our pelicans are particularly cheeky – they’ll steal our sponges and run off with them, or peck our feet to demand food.

I know you’re not supposed to have favourites – but do you?!
The rockhopper penguins – they’re so interested in what’s going on around them. If you’re cleaning in their enclosure, there’ll always be a rockhopper right behind you, watching to see if you’re doing a good job! They also love chasing butterflies. You’ll sometimes get 18 rockhoppers all chasing the same butterfly up and down the rocks. 

What have been the most memorable moments at work?
Probably our breeding successes. For example, we have a breeding pair of Sumatran laughingthrushes, and the highlight of the year for me has been seeing these endangered birds produce two chicks. We sometimes step in to hand-rear chicks if the parents need help. This can be an intense experience: chicks will need feeding every two hours, and to stop the chicks ‘imprinting’ on us and thinking we’re their parents, we cover up in masked bee-keeping suits, which isn’t always very comfortable in the heat of summer! But how many people can say they’ve helped to rear a flamingo, or a critically endangered laughingthrush? 

Has anything surprised you about the job?
Just how invested the general public are in the Zoo. It’s really nice to meet people who have been coming for decades, and can tell you the stories of individual animals. Some of our flamingos are 50 years old, and there are people who’ve grown up with them and seen them grow from chicks to adults.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I love seeing animals in the wild. I recently did a six-hour drive to south Wales just to see the puffins on Skomer Island. One of my best trips ever was to Canada, where we saw bears, moose and elk. My partner is a carnivore keeper here at the Zoo, and I thought she’d be really good at spotting all the mammals and I’d be good at finding the birds, but in fact, it was just the opposite!

Any dream species left to spot?
We do a lot of work with endangered wattled cranes here at the Zoo. Sadly, wattled cranes aren’t great at incubating their eggs – they often accidentally break them. So we’ll move abandoned eggs to the nest of our red-crowned cranes, who act as ‘foster parents’ to incubate the eggs and rear the chicks. One day I’d love to visit Africa and see wattled cranes in their native habitat.

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