Meet the keeper: Josh Tall, Whipsnade Zoo

In this summer’s edition of Wild About magazine, Josh Tall shares the secrets of Whipsnade’s hyacinth macaws. Here, he opens up about his role as a Flying Birds Keeper, working with everything from parrots and hornbills to corvids and kookaburras, and why we train our birds to encourage their natural behaviours.

Whipsnade Zookeeper Josh Tall with the incredibly colourful military macaw
Whipsnade Zookeeper Josh Tall with the incredibly colourful military macaw

What’s it like looking after the flying birds?
It’s really varied – we work with everything from the tiny red-billed hornbills, which weigh around 160g (that’s lighter than a hamster), right up to the newly arrived African fish eagles, which can reach up to 3.5kg (about the same as a domestic cat – or 20 hamsters) and have a wingspan of two metres! Every bird has its own distinctive personality and behaviour. We work with them day in, day out, to build a close bond, so that they’re comfortable around us if they need veterinary care and happy to show off some of their amazing natural behaviours in the bird demonstrations.

Do you have any favourite among the birds?
I’m a bit of a sucker for corvids – a group of birds including crows, ravens and magpies – so I’d have to say Dolly, our pied crow. Corvids are highly intelligent, and I love encouraging her to show us how crows use tools by poking a stick into a tree hole. In the wild, they do this to prise out insects or grubs. 

Anything you’re excited about sharing with visitors this summer?
We’ve recently hand-raised three kookaburras and we’ve been busy training them. Bruce will be showing visitors how kookaburras can snatch insects out of the air, Bondai will be demonstrating how they can take down snakes twice their own length in the wild and Sheila might reveal just how good they are at stealing food!

When did you know you wanted to work with animals?
I grew up around animals – my mum always had pets in the house, and when I was about 13 or 14, we got a parrot. At some point I thought, “Could I get actually get paid for doing something I love and enjoy, like caring for this animal every day?”

What do you get up to when you’re not at the Zoo?
My three-year-old daughter keeps me busy. She already loves animals and recognises lots of birds in the garden. My fiancée Chloe and I are also trying to reschedule our wedding this autumn, after it twice had to be cancelled due to lockdowns. Fingers crossed it will be third time lucky!

What do you enjoy most about your job?
I love working with animals, but the most important side of my job is engaging the public and sharing the conservation stories of our birds – many of which, including the hyacinth macaws, are threatened in the wild. I love talking to young children who want to know everything about the birds they’ve seen. If I can pass on some of my enthusiasm for wildlife to them, I’ve done my job! I really missed that when the Zoo was closed. 

What’s the trickiest part of the job?
Dealing with all the bird poo – especially on hot days! Luckily, if you know the body language of birds, you can generally avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Gold members, Fellows and Patrons can read Josh's interview in this summer's issue of Wild About magazine. 

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