IF YOU'RE LOOKING for live waterfowl, but don't want to to get up at the crack of dawn or muck about in the marsh, here's a way to cheat: The tiny Salisbury Zoo, on 12 acres beside a branch of the Wicomico River, has one of the finest eastern waterfowl presentations in the country.

Right now, most of the fowl are housed in one small duck cage -- protection against the otter or mink who's been carrying them off lately. Life in such close quarters is "not as bad as it could be," says zoo director Peter Crowcroft, with his Australian accent, "because mating season is over, so we don't have to spend our time breaking up fights. And the waterfowl enthusiasts love it because they can come to one cage and photograph everything."

Visitors may come to the zoo just for the waterfowl, but once inside, "they loiter," Crowcroft says. And for good reason: The 21-year-old zoo presents roughly 350 North and South American animals in beautifully kept settings.

Bison roam near a bridge constructed for admiring tourists; monkeys swing along ropes strung from six multi-branched trees; ocelots climb fiberglass rocks; and the zoo's stars, the spectacled bears, climb trees in a newly constructed, electric- fenced play area.

The place can be enjoyed in full in one leisurely afternoon. "Visitors wander around, and leave here relaxed," Crowcroft says, comparing the feeling to the kind of peace that people in the Middle Ages used to get by wandering into a church.

In fact, "zoology is organized along theological lines; the research scientists of today would have been the monastic monks of the Middle Ages," says Crowcroft. A former "bishop" -- he headed Chicago's Brookfield Zoo and the Metro Toronto Zoo before coming to the Eastern Shore -- Crowcroft sees Salisbury as "a kind of parish church. We don't have gift shops or snacks or Coke machines; we just do animals."

With that small-is-beautiful attitude, Crowcroft and his staff of six manage to spend their days caring for and teaching about animals rather than squabbling about administrative details, gift shop prices and health inspections at the snack bar, he says. But they also must manage to do everything themselves on their $200,000 city-based budget. The spectacled bears' new showcase, for instance, is homemade.

It takes no prompting to get the zookeepers to talk about their favorite beasts. "See this little burrowing owl?" Crowcroft says, leaping the fence around the prairie dog town. A tiny owl sits stubbornly in one of the burrows, eyeing him. "He'll give a warning cry," he says, going straight at the bird.

The owl flies up to a nearby tree and lets out a high-pitched chirp. "And the dogs will echo it," Dr. Crowcroft says, turning expectantly toward a group of the chubby animals, who sit contentedly on their bottoms, their legs splayed in front, eating nuts. No such cry; they're not alarmed.

Undiscouraged, Crowcroft climbs back out of the enclosure and explains that the owl's wings aren't clipped: "He can go anywhere he likes in the park, but this is his kind of country."

Crowcroft also likes to hang around the ocelots, because "nothing is really known about how these animals breed. I called the world's greatest expert and asked him what I should do, and he didn't know. But he suggested I set up two large nests, which we did -- large enough to be shared by the whole family, if they like -- and see if they start spending a lot of time close together. Look: they're pretty close together now," he says, pointing to the two as they rest on the rocks, casually ignoring each other.

He also keeps an eye on the bald eagle cage, he says, because "there's a wild bald eagle who likes to come and visit them occasionally -- it's rather fun to watch."

But, like other males on the staff, he's not that enthused about the half-dozen spider monkeys, a group he calls "rather dull."

One sure way to liven up the experience is to bring a woman around. way. The male monkey in the band was raised by a woman, says docent Ed Kraus, "and if a woman comes anywhere near the cage, he gets really excited and starts romancing her."

The zoo serves a city and county of about 50,000 residents, yet has 100,000 visitors annually. Since 80 percent of them are local, there plainly are plenty of recidivists.

"It's a very relaxing place to be," said Crowcroft, gazing across the river. "Look -- do you see the geese flying?"

GETTING THERE -- From the Beltway, take U.S. 50 across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and almost all the way through Salisbury; turn right on Civic Avenue. Go past Salisbury Mall, and turn right on Glen Avenue. The next left is Memorial Drive, which leads to the zoo parking lot. Open daily 8 to 4:30; free. For information: 301/548-3188.