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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Bird Park: A vacation day in Korea

Gyeongju - a historical city about 30 minutes south of us.
Yesterday, Nick and I decided to explore more of Gyeongju, a nearby city, in the approximately 5 hour vacation window amid Nick's grades getting done, the kids still attending school, and preparing for our US trip.  When we started our drive, we intended to head to Bomun Lake (lower right on the above map), but we maybe got a little turned around somehow, couldn't find the lake, and decided to jettison those plans and instead stop at the Gyeongju East Palace Garden and Bird Park. We'd not heard of this place before and wondered how Gyeongju's bird zoo might compare to our less-then-tourist-worthy-but-it's-free Pohang zoo (see here for previous thoughts on that strange collection of caged creatures).

I won't tire you with the unsurprising details of our usual mishaps in (a) figuring out where to get in, (b) figuring out how to use the Kiosk Ticket Master Machine vs. just paying the woman sitting a meter away at a desk and (c) having to present our printed tickets to every darn ajumma we saw on the grounds (ok, just two of them, but still.  I just didn't expect a t-shirted lady who was out weeding to demand our tickets).  What might surprise you, dear reader, is that a certain person who took an entire semester of college-level Korean was only able, in the face of a veritable rush of Korean sentences, to stammer out "No Hanguk." Which means "No Korea."  Oh, classy.

At the Palace Garden's grounds (we never did see a palace), we observed a very matching (though somewhat grouchy) young couple; an astonishing amount of grass (not very common here) with a pond of musical/dancing fountains,;and lots of statues.  The Chinese zodiac creatures I can kind of understand, given the strong historical influence of Chinese Confucianism, but I could not so easily explain the bronze wolf-ish family standing on rocks.
We studied the map and decided to head toward the Bird Park building.  On the way, we were strongly reminded of the strange Wisconsin tradition of displaying animal statues of unusual size.  Of course, we had to re-live our cheesy Wisconsin vacation photography of 20+ years ago, and because I had the camera, Nick got to do the posing.

The foam deer family had many layers of glue around their rickety ears;
I do NOT understand the Korean fascination with stag beetles (you can buy them at the school supply store), let alone the appeal of the meter-long versions on a wall;
not quite sure why Nick confused a dodo with a T-rex.
Is that a grand entrance or what?  What an auspicious beginning.
We were enchanted from the moment we stepped under the 50' tall feather into the glass bird house.  It combined the best features of the Sertoma Butterfly House (Sioux Falls, South Dakota) and the Henry Dourly Omaha Zoo (Nebraska).  Large enclosures allowed several varieties of tropical birds to fly, eat, snooze, cling to mesh screens by our faces, and scream at each other on occasion.  Tucked away in a few spots were small displays of snakes (has a zoo python EVER moved in front of a visitor?), lizards, fish (fish are SO BORING), and turtles (surprisingly peppy).  And one (1) ferret and one (1) chipmunk, both of whom chatted about how out of place they felt in a bird/reptile/fish zoo.

My favorite non-bird was a very dumb (drunk? psychotic?) blue monitor.  He (she? can one get a job as a lizard sexer?), a stunning blue lizard about 0.5 meters long (mostly tail) lunged from its back ledge toward the plexiglass, smacked its snoot good, and collapsed to the bottom where it then staggered up onto its back legs and lurched alongside the glass.  His wobbly brain, directing his head in one direction, seemed unable to control his body, which was moving somewhere else altogether.  I should have been righteously horrified by the creature's self-imposed torment, I suppose, but I was admittedly rather entertained fascinated.  In a purely scientific sense, of course.

This particular blue monitor isn't the one we saw - the photo credit goes here.
I digress.  Of COURSE there were birds at the bird park, and most were selections from God's very best tropical work.  Here are a few.

I believe this is a channel-billed toucan, which acted far calmer than
Toucan Sam did during the Saturday morning TV of my youth.

We watched 20ish Sun Parakeets for a long time,
and they seemed to enjoy watching us just as much.
(My camera battery died here, so remaining photos are from Nick's phone.)
Lots of cockatoos and parrots were happy to meet us, clinging to the cages.with feet and sometimes beaks
Some of cage labels included English names, but some translations also needed spell-check.  Thus, our new pink bird friend was inadvertently called "Major Mitchell's Cock Too" which, of course, cracked me up.
Wandering among the cages, I noticed some stairs that led to a door with a Korean sign on it.  I couldn't read the sign, but it did not say Danger or Staff Only as all the other doors had, we went.  And found ourselves inside a cage where we could freely interact with the birds:  no staff hovered and no signs warned us not to touch or harass the birds (at least, not in a language I could understand).  And no one yelled at us, including the bored guy who came in to feed the birds. Marveling at this opportunity, we got pretty close to most of the birds before they hopped or flew away, but a blue and gold macaw sat still, just watching us approach.  Working up my courage in the face of his (her?) hooked bill, I slowly raised my forearm to his chest, and he hopped on.  And despite my anticipation of pain from a good pecking, he proceeded to use his stubby black tongue to lick my arms and fingers, maybe searching for food or enjoying my salty sweat.  He then hopped his way up my arm and poked around my ear.  Once he discovered my earrings, though, Nick feared some wifely damage and traded bird for camera.  We were utterly delighted by this creature and so grateful to spend as much time as we liked with him.

Nope - it didn't hurt a bit.  Just gentle nibbles and lots of tickly licking with his black stubby tongue. 
Nick had admired this same macaw earlier in our wanderings and was very pleased to hold him, despite his incessant licking (the macaw's licking, not Nick's).  

A woman with two young daughters entered the enclosure too, and they cautiously approached these giant foreigners (us) holding a giant bird (the macaw).  At this point the macaw was really enjoying Nick's glasses, picking them from his pocket and licking the lenses.  The younger girl approached nervously, watching intently, but she didn't want to hold the bird.  Her sister just wanted OUT.
After our hunger ratings had gotten to 7 (hey - I'm a social scientist - our family often reports hunger ratings on a 0-10 scale and folks at 8 get food immediately before their inner monsters can emerge), we ordered lunch at the little kitchen and passed the time watching birds in the nearby enclosure. As we waited, we gradually noticed that a couple of the kitchen staff were wearing birds.  Living ones.  On their shoulders. As they made our food.  (Ah, when in Rome, one must ignore all the health and safety standards with which one may have been raised.)  Although the western-style food was tasty, Nick's chili dog had no chili on it whatsoever, but plenty of corn and jalapeno peppers. We do not yet understand the Korean attraction to corn on pizza and other foods deemed "Western."  It's not even sweet corn - they eat what as a kid we called field corn.  It's for livestock.  It's like eating old rubber bands.

(As an added bonus for the Bird Park, I located the restroom and was very impressed: it was full service!  For a public bathroom in this part of Korea to have a stool toilet (not a squatter), toilet paper in the stall, a sink with both cold and hot running water, soap, AND paper towels is pretty rare outside McDonald's, so this bathroom totally deserved my private little happy dance).  

We wrapped up our inside tour (wondering why bleachers were stationed outside the mallard enclosure and why piglets and rabbits were encaged by the finches) and headed outside for the remaining few enclosures.  The two ostriches looked downright sketchy, like they'd been in some bad bar fights. Perhaps they'd been with the neighboring peacocks, who had little respectable stuff left to strut (the peahens barely suppressed their giggles at the sadly persistent males).  The turkey exhibit also included several of your basic farm goats (why are American farm animals at a small Korean bird park? why?) and then we passed an enclosure of - what?  It sure smells like... really?  REALLY?  Dogs.  Five big, mean-looking brown ones. Possibly obtained from some alleyway after years of barely evading vicious wolves or lions.  Now they're retired. At a bird park.  Oh,the indignities.

Of course, any zoo worth its admission price arranges for visitors to exit through a tempting gift shop filled with items made in China. This zoo had a similar set-up, but this shop appeared to be owned by Avon, as most of it was dedicated to aromas: spritzes, sprays, candles, and herbal teas.  The unusually perky middle-aged attendant rushed at us from behind her counter, grabbed a tester spray, and reached up to spritz Nick's neck, pointing to a sign about citronella and mosquitoes.  She then raced over to me and spritzed something on my neck, then rubbed my elbow and my knee, pointing to the spray.  She next brandished a tube similar to chapstick, and doomed to accept this humiliation, I pursed my lips for her.  Instead, she drew two quick vertical stripes under my nose.  As the menthol scent dove into my nostrils, I was reminded of cop shows where rookies at an autopsy use similar ointments to prevent gagging at the smells.  I thus pondered the intended use of this particular product and why it was for sale at a bird park gift shop.   

All in all, the Bird Park was an excellent adventure and we will definitely return with the kids (and perhaps bribe their friends to come as translators).  Just having the macaw on my arm (and in my ear) was well worth the trip; the various Korean strange-nesses were just frosting on the proverbial cake. And, like most Americans, I do enjoy my frosting.  But in small, manageable doses like this.