January was a month full of firsts for the Smithsonian's National Zoo's giant panda cub, Xiao Qi Ji. The growing bear played with his first enrichment toys, sampled his first sweet potato, took his first bite of bamboo, let fans into his habitat during his first livestream and experienced his first encounter with snow! Through each of these milestones, giant panda assistant curator Laurie Thompson and keepers Marty Dearie and Mariel Lally helped keep fans at home connected to our cub.
1. Tumbles and Toys (Jan. 11, 2021)
Spending more time out of the den presents our cub with more opportunities to explore — and play! While we have presented Xiao Qi Ji with enrichment items before (most notably a pumpkin for Halloween) we have seen his interest in them grow exponentially since the beginning of January. These items encourage our giant pandas to keep physically active and mentally sharp; they also give the bears an opportunity to use their natural behaviors and choose how to spend their time.
With Xiao Qi Ji becoming more aware of and interested in his surroundings, keepers gave him two toys to investigate: a small red Jolly Egg (perfectly sized for a panda cub) and an empty PVC puzzle feeder. When Xiao Qi Ji is exploring the habitat and happens upon them, he usually stops for a few minutes to paw at them, pick them up and give them a nibble.
Some toys built for cubs are made from softer materials to help the animals grasp or chomp on them. Our team is very careful to watch Xiao Qi Ji as he plays during the day, since Mei Xiang’s more powerful teeth and jaws could damage the toys. Before we leave for the day, we remove these toys from the enclosure. Neither Mei Xiang nor Xiao Qi Ji seem to mind, content to eat or play with their bamboo overnight.
Personality-wise, Xiao Qi Ji seems to take after his mother. Like Mei Xiang, he is careful and cautious when it comes to exploring his environment. Now that he has mastered walking, he has started to practice his climbing skills. He is very deliberate about the paths he takes when traveling up or down the rockwork—more so than siblings Tai Shan, Bao Bao or Bei Bei were. He has taken a few tumbles here and there, but not nearly as many as his brothers and sister did at this age. Luckily, these bears are built to be robust and have thick, wooly fur to cushion their fall.
2. A Playful Panda Cub (Jan. 15, 2021)
Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji’s word of the week seems to be: play! Our 4.5-month-old cub’s interest in his surroundings really took off this week. He seems to explore the world with his mouth. He nibbles on everything from his paws and enrichment toys to mother Mei Xiang’s ears. While she is eating bamboo, we often see Xiao Qi Ji try to initiate a play session with a few not-so-ferocious bites. After Mei Xiang shifts outside in the morning, he often emerges from the den to “supervise” the keepers as they clean and get the habitat ready for Mei Xiang’s return.
Xiao Qi Ji received his first enrichment toys a few weeks ago and plays with them whenever they catch his attention. Those who have followed his siblings' stories have asked when Xiao Qi Ji will get a rubber tub. With the adults, we often put leaf-eater biscuits or sensory enrichment (like bubbles) into these tubs. Cubs, though, seem to enjoy the exercise of climbing in and out or just sitting in this cub-sized space.
We weigh Xiao Qi Ji in one such tub. This week, he tipped the scales at 19.8 pounds (9.04 kilograms). He also receives tubs to play in during the day. He is not quite big enough to get out from underneath a tub if it were to overturn on top of him, so he only receives this enrichment during the day when we can keep an eye on him.
3. A Parcel of Sweet Potato (Jan. 22, 2021)
Just like his mother, Mei Xiang, our giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji is curious yet cautious about the world around him. Yesterday — the day our cub turned five months old — we decided to introduce him to something new. Using a piece of bamboo shred as a spoon, we scraped some cooked sweet potato onto the end, then handed it over to Xiao Qi Ji. He grabbed the bamboo in his mouth, paused for a moment to take in the new taste, then lay back and licked the remainder. When we offered him more, he wouldn’t stop nibbling on it!
Xiao Qi Ji clearly enjoyed this new treat, which is not surprising since both Mei Xiang and his father, Tian Tian, are also fond of sweet potatoes. In addition to bamboo, nutrient-rich biscuits, carrots and apples, sweet potatoes are part of our pandas’ balanced diet.
Even though Xiao Qi Ji is beginning to sample some new foods, Mei Xiang’s milk is still his main source of nutrition. Around 1 year old, bamboo and other solid foods make up the majority of a panda's diet. However, Xiao Qi Ji may nurse for comfort up to 18 months of age. He typically nurses at night and in the early morning. On Wednesday, Jan. 20, he weighed 20.79 pounds (9.45 kilograms), and continues to make good gains.
4. Livestream with Xiao Qi Ji (Jan. 27, 2021)
This was a big week for our little panda cub! On Wednesday, Jan. 27, the giant panda team hosted our first-ever virtual encounter with Xiao Qi Ji. An important part of saving species is being able to tell their stories, and it was wonderful to see in the comments that many of you are as enamored with our adorable ambassador as we are. Your kind words and support for our bears and our team are much appreciated, especially as the Zoo remains closed and we continue to navigate this “new normal” brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Xiao Qi Ji’s newest enrichment toy made an appearance in Wednesday’s broadcast. This week, we gave him a bright green ball with a small handle. Since it is made from a softer material than the adults’ toys, it’s perfect for him to chew on and sink his claws into. It is also scented like green apple, providing some olfactory enrichment, too!
During the livestream, this ball was at the center of a friendly game of tug-of-war between Xiao Qi Ji and keeper Marty Dearie. Don’t let Xiao Qi Ji’s small size fool you—he is remarkably strong! Just before Xiao Qi Ji stole everyone’s hearts — and wrestled his new green ball away from Marty — we placed him on a scale for his weekly weigh-in. Since his last measurement seven days prior, our 5-month-old cub gained another two pounds. This week, he weighed 22 pounds (10 kilograms).
5. A Bear's First Taste of Bamboo (Jan. 29, 2021)
This week, bamboo was on the menu. We saw Xiao Qi Ji munching on some of his mother Mei Xiang’s leftover leaves. As Xiao Qi Ji’s walking and climbing skills improve, we are starting to see him explore more and more of his habitat. Yesterday, he walked out of the den, through both indoor enclosures, and over to the opposite den. He sat up and pressed his face against the “take out window” where we routinely feed Mei Xiang. It was hilarious to see our curious cub waiting at the same window for us!
6. First Encounter With Snow (Jan. 31, 2021)
As snow blanketed the Washington, D.C. region, the Smithsonian's National Zoo's animals woke up to a winter wonderland. With this weather event came another significant milestone—giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji’s first encounter with snow! Keepers say although he seemed nervous at first, eventually he worked up the courage to take a little nip at the fresh powder.
7. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian Enjoy the Snow (Jan. 31, 2021)
Slides, somersaults and pure panda joy. Happy snow day from giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian!
8. Tian Tian Has a Ball (Feb. 2, 2021)
Giant panda Tian Tian had a ball in the snow. Literally.
This story was featured in the February 2021 issue of National Zoo News. Behind these 'aww’-inspiring moments, an expert team works tirelessly to provide our panda family with everything they need to thrive, ensuring a bright future for this species. If this cub sparks joy for you, please consider making a donation to the Zoo. On behalf of the animals we care for and protect: thank you! Please note that the Zoo is temporarily closed as a public health precaution to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.