Rare Egyptian vulture proves he’s special for many reasons


Egyptian Vulture

Bird keeper Debbie Milligan guest-blogs on Zoohoo!

As animal keepers, we are frequently asked: “What is your favorite fill in the blank?” I always think that question is like, “What is your favorite pie?” How can I pick just one when they are all amazing?

However, every once in a while, one member of our collection sticks out and becomes special to a lot of people. In honor of International Vulture Awareness Day on Sept. 3 (put it on your calendar!), and as a way to say bon voyage to one special bird, let me introduce you to Einstein.

Einstein is a 28-year-old Egyptian vulture who came to the Dallas Zoo in 1990. Egyptian vultures are striking birds with white body feathers, black flight feathers and a bare yellow face. With three subspecies, they range from South and Eastern Europe, India and Africa. They tend to be solitary birds or live as a pair; rarely are these birds found in groups.

For his keepers, what makes Einstein so great is his attitude. He is just… mellow. He doesn’t walk, he strolls. He isn’t intimidated by larger birds or with new items. Egyptian vultures are one of the few bird species that use tools. These birds will find rocks, of a particular size, and use the rocks to open up eggs.  The birds will use their bill to pick up the rock and throw it at the egg until they break it open to eat the yolk and egg white inside.

As a special treat, we occasionally give Einstein an unfertile ostrich egg, and he immediately shows off his tool-using skills. It is so impressive to watch him do this. (See my video below!)


Egyptian vultures were the symbol for royalty in ancient Egypt, They were the sacred bird of Egyptian Goddess Isis and can be seen on many hieroglyphs! In fact, Egyptian vultures were so revered, they were protected under the Pharaoh and became so common they were called “Pharaoh’s chicken.”

It’s sad that these beautiful birds are now an endangered species. Their numbers are declining rapidly.  One of the main causes for their downfall, as for most vulture species, is by eating poisoned carcasses.

Many African farmers will deliberately poison livestock carcasses, intended to kill lions and other predators as retaliation after they’ve killed their livestock, but the vultures get to them first. Vultures also die from eating the poisoned carcasses poachers leave, so the birds aren’t able to circle the sky and potentially alert authorities of illegal activity. Vultures are also dying from electrocution by flying into powerlines, and increased human disturbance in their breeding areas.

I bet you’re asking: “Why are you saying goodbye to Einstein if he is so special and we need to breed more Egyptian vultures?” It is because Einstein is one of only three Egyptian vultures in U.S. zoos. In the best interest of his species, and for Einstein to produce chicks, he needs to go to Europe to find a mate. The Prague Zoo is one institution that is world-renowned for breeding Egyptian vultures. Hopefully Einstein will become part of this program and produce many chicks to help the survival of his species.

So please come visit Einstein before he leaves this fall and celebrate this wonderful group of birds: vultures! You can find Einstein in the saddle-billed stork exhibit on the Gorilla Trail near the monorail station.

Categories: Africa, Birds, Conservation, Zookeepers | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

National Zookeeper Week: Why we love our careers


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Lower Wilds of Africa zookeeper Cristina Powers guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

Working with animals in zoos is not nearly as glamorous as you might think. Our days are not filled with baby animals crawling all over us; instead a lot of our time is actually spent cleaning up after them, among other not-so-clean tasks.

Something visitors may not know is how zookeepers develop very special relationships with the animals we work with. Our primates have amazing and unique personalities, making every day I work here different than the one before.

Some of our chimps are very playful with us and it doesn’t involve any physical contact. As a protected contact, AZA-accredited zoo, we don’t share the same space with some of our animals, including great apes.

In the mornings, our 26-year-old male chimp, Mookie, loves to engage us in a play session. He’ll look at me, bob his head up and down while bouncing his body, and he’ll run fast through his indoor rooms. I’ll chase him from the hallway and when he gets to the end, he’ll turn around and run the opposite direction.

Chimp Mookie is known for his playful antics with keepers.

Chimp Mookie is known for his playful antics with keepers.

Mookie will do this many times, then stop, signaling play time is over. Or I’ll just get tired and can’t do it any longer!

With 7-year-old chimp Kona, it’s a little different. I’ll start running along the hallway and he might decide to join in the fun. Even little Mshindi has started to catch on.

These animals are truly special to the people who work with them day in and day out. If they get sick, we worry. If we go on vacation, we miss them. When they move to another zoo, we are sent with them for a few days to help them adjust, and minimize stress after the move.

When keepers leave the zoo, it is certainly not the end of caring and wanting to know more about our animals’ lives. We’ll email their new keepers and ask for updates and pictures. Keepers and volunteers will even arrange personal trips to go see an animal at their new home. And you can bet they’re both happy to see each other.

A lot is said about an elephant’s memory, but don’t underestimate a primate’s. They can act very excited when a retired keeper comes to see them, or even someone they haven’t seen in a while. They’ll greet their old human friends with happy vocalizations; they’ll try to reach for them and sometimes won’t leave until the person is gone.

When chimps are happy they might show it in different ways, such as opening their mouths really big, making panting vocalizations, and bobbing their heads.

Keeper Cristina Powers shares a moment with chimp Missy.

Keeper Cristina Powers shares a moment with chimp Missy.

Being a zookeeper means sometimes we spend even more time around our animals and co-workers than our own families. During ice and snow storms, when the whole city (including the Zoo!) is shut down for business, we still have to spend many hours driving so we can get here to feed and clean their living quarters. If there’s still snow on the ground the next day, we do it all over again.

Same for holidays. Even though the zoo is closed to the public on Christmas Day, our animals still need to be cared for just the same. So we make sure to have enough staff around to get the job done.

Although not a common occurrence, if severe illness strikes in our animals, or one is still recovering from anesthesia or new situations arise, you bet we will be here overnight, taking turns keeping a watchful eye over them.

Unfortunately, there comes a time when we have to say goodbye forever. The death of a beloved animal is very hard on us. If time allows, the keepers at home on their days off are called in to say their final goodbye. Tears flow freely. Calls are made and texts are sent to the ones who no longer work at the zoo.

People from other departments, volunteers, old co-workers might send cards, emails, flowers, food – they know we are grieving. We miss them, we remember them, and we bring them up in conversations often. Even new keepers get to know so much about them, because we can’t stop talking about how special they were for years and years to come.

I hope this gives a small glimpse of how special these animals are to us. This is dedicated to all zookeepers and their endless love for animals. Happy National Zookeeper Week, friends.

Categories: Africa, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Mandrill, Zookeepers | Tags: | 3 Comments

A keeper’s tale: Extra care for a tiny newborn


Upper Wilds of Africa assistant supervisor Megan Lumpkin guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

_MG_0847-dik dik male calf 3 weeks old-CBWhen little Dasher was born just a few days before Christmas, we were elated! Previously the Dallas Zoo – historically one of the most successful for breeding Kirk’s dik-dik – hadn’t kept a breeding pair of the tiny antelope species in 20 years.

Strong and healthy, newborn Dasher weighed just under 2 pounds at birth and stood just 7 inches. We monitored the newborn and his mother remotely through cameras in their barn prior to his birth. Unfortunately, Dasher wasn’t receiving the care he needed from his mother. When veterinarians and animal care staff realized he would need to be bottle-fed, we quickly formed a team to carry out the protocol for hand-rearing.

Assistant Supervisor Megan and little Dasher share a sweet moment.

Assistant supervisor Megan Lumpkin and little Dasher share a sweet moment.

Bottle-feeding hoofstock can be challenging, but Dasher was hungry and readily accepted the bottle. Little tricks facilitated the early feeding process. He responded well to keepers leaning over him, as a dik-dik mother would do. Dasher also ate more readily when keepers simulated grooming by rubbing him with a warm, damp cloth. In the beginning, we needed to feed Dasher seven times a day, often returning to the Zoo in the very late and very early hours to care for him.

Dik-dik calves typically nest and spend most of the day separate from their mothers; therefore, Dasher slept between scheduled feedings. But when we’d appear with the bottle, Dasher would live up to his name and greet us by darting and dashing excitedly around our feet. He drained the bottle in just a few minutes, then we’d spend time stimulating him to urinate and defecate – just as his mother would do. We weighed Dasher before his first feeding early in the morning, so the feedings for the day could be adjusted according to his weight gain.

Keeper Christine Stephan gently feeds Dasher.

Keeper Christine Stephan gently feeds Dasher.

Measuring just over a foot tall as adults, dik-diks are one of the tiniest of all antelope species. Socially, male and females live in monogamous pairs and are found in the grasslands of Kenya, Tanzania, and Namibia. The name “dik-dik” derives from the sounds the tiny antelope make when alarmed and running for cover. It’s not easy being a very small animal in the wild!

Most definitely a prey animal, dik-diks are quick to react and run when frightened. However, Dasher’s frequent interactions with his caregivers taught him to be brave and bold in new activities and situations. He quickly learned to mount a scale voluntarily, to enter a crate for transport, and to allow staff to touch and lift his feet for hoofwork if needed.

Keeper staff relished time spent with Dasher. A peaceful pause during the course of busy routines, feeding time was quiet and focused – until the feeding was over, and Dasher would spring into energetic motion. Recharged with milk, he frequently would jump and scamper around his hay-filled stall. Dasher would run circles around us, vocalize with excitement, and sometimes display his mohawk. As dik-diks are typically quite secretive, Dasher’s comfort and familiarity with his caregivers made us privy to the immense charm of this tiny species.

As part of the feeding team, we all communicated closely concerning Dasher’s daily activities and enjoyed celebrating his various firsts – including the first time he urinated by himself. Zookeepers get excited about the strangest things!

Newborn Dasher was an instant charmer with keepers.

Newborn Dasher was an instant charmer with keepers.

As Dasher grew, we offered him fresh leaves and grain to introduce him to the solid foods he would enjoy after weaning. After two short months, we began to decrease his bottle feedings and increase time spent introducing solids. The weaning process was so gradual that Dasher didn’t appear to miss the bottle. His time spent with keepers remained the same positive sessions that they had been from the beginning.

At 3 months old, Dasher was reintroduced to his mother so he could learn the finer points of dik-dik behavior – basically, anything his human “mothers” may have missed. Initially, his mom avoided contact with him, but soon learned that he wasn’t looking to nurse from her. The two can now be observed lying closely together in the same barn stall overnight. As we continue to weigh Dasher and work with him closely on hoof-work training, maybe his mother will learn a thing or two from him! Dasher still has a few more months of growing to do before he can be seen in his habitat from the Wilds of Africa Adventure Safari monorail.

(See why Dasher’s name is so fitting!)

Categories: Africa, Conservation | 1 Comment

Saving penguins: A nesting nightmare in South Africa


Kevin Graham, Wilds of Africa bird supervisor, guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

Over the past 100 years, the population of African penguins has declined from more than two million breeding pairs to slightly more than 20,000 breeding pairs left. This dramatic decline has resulted from many factors, unfortunately all of which are human-related.

I’ve recently returned from a workshop and time studying the various remaining colonies of African penguins in the Cape Town area of South Africa. Along with our VP of Education and Conservation, Dr. Patty McGill, I had the privilege of meeting the people who work in the field with these native penguins. For quite some time, I will continue to work with them to develop a crucial nesting plan to help the birds and begin their recovery.

In the first half of the 20th Century, egg collection from the breeding range decimated the hatch rates, with estimates of more than 1.5 million eggs per year being destroyed or collected for food and other uses.

Around this same time, it was found that guano (bird feces) had accumulated to a depth of many feet on the breeding islands. The guano served as a perfect substrate for the penguins to dig their nest burrows, but it also was a valuable crop fertilizer. So humans scraped the guano from the islands, leaving the birds with few options for nesting burrows.

African penguins are now nesting in the open in some South African locations.

Penguins are now nesting in the open in some South African beach locations./Kevin Graham

These two events, in conjunction with catastrophic oil spills; and the impact of unrestricted commercial fishing; human encroachment into breeding ranges; and global climate change have compounded the challenges faced by the African penguin population.

Recently, organizations and colony managers in South Africa have tried to develop an artificial nest that African penguins could use to supplement the little remaining nesting habitat.

These attempts have seen limited success. In many cases, the penguins chose not to use the nesting structures, either due to overall design, excessive heat accumulation, ectoparasite buildup in the structure, and other potentially unknown factors.

In some locations, this has led penguins to nest on the surface, exposing their eggs and chicks to additional risks that weren’t as significant in the burrow nests. Predation from land mammals such as mongoose, aerial predators of eggs/chicks such as kelp gulls, and even pet and feral dogs pose dramatic risks to nesting penguins in exposed areas.

In addition, those exposed surface nests face the challenge of temperature extremes not found in the burrow nests, where temperatures are regulated by the surrounding substrate. This leads to a higher rate of nest abandonment when the climate is unsuitable for the adults to continue their nesting attempt.

Association of Zoos and Aquarium (AZA) member institutions, including the Dallas Zoo, have been strong partners in the protection and attempted recovery of African penguins for more than two decades. Recently, a new initiative to focus efforts was implemented: AZA’s Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program.

I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to work with this program as the North American coordinator for the Artificial Nesting Project. I’ll be working collaboratively with organizations, researchers, and colony managers, all focused exclusively on creating a nesting system to help this highly endangered species recover.

While we can’t recreate the guano fields that disappeared more than 60 years ago, we will use our combined knowledge and skills in the zoological and research fields to develop a suitable option for the recovery of African penguins in South Africa and Namibia. I look forward to sharing these exciting options on ZooHoo! as they develop. (Visit our more than a dozen waddling, splashing and sunbathing African penguins at Zoo and discover the beauty of these remarkable birds we’re saving.)

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Penguins | Leave a comment

Swazi elephants doing well

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A close-up of mother Nolwazi enjoying some browse.

Our experts have been busy round-the-clock caring for the five elephants we rescued from drought-ravaged Swaziland. We’re happy to report that the new arrivals are doing well!

They’re loving their much better diet. With food and hay affected by the drought, they arrived underweight. But in the past three weeks, all have gained weight, with several putting on more than 100 pounds.

And they’re already bonding with our keepers. Because we use only protected contact and free choice – we don’t force the animals to do anything they don’t want to do – these relationships are very important. Names are critical; elephants definitely respond when they hear them. The keepers chose names that honor the elephants’ African heritage.

So please let us introduce:

  • Mlilo (“fire”): She’s a spirited one! Estimated at 10-15 years old, her name is pronounced “ma-LEE-lo.”
  • Zola (“quiet/tranquil”): About the same age as Mlilo, she’s a mellow girl.
  • Amahle (“beautiful one”): Aged 6-10, she’s the smallest – but she’s growing fast, having put on more than 110 pounds so far! It’s pronounced “a-MAH-lee.”
  • Nolwazi (“knowledgable”): The oldest at 20-25 years and Amahle’s mother. Pronounced “nole-WAH-zee.”
  • Tendaji (“make it happen”): The only bull, he’s also gained more than 100 pounds. Pronounced “ten-DAHJ-ee.”

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    Male Tendaji dozes off on a sand mound.

The group remains together under a USDA quarantine, which we expect to be lifted shortly. But don’t count on seeing them all in the Giants of the Savanna soon; we’ll move slowly to give them time to adjust to the new habitats and be introduced to our four “Golden Girls.”

This remarkable rescue was a long, complex process, made even more difficult by the spreading of misinformation. But because of your continued support, these five remarkable creatures are alive and thriving, and we’re proud of that. Thank you!

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Elephant | 1 Comment

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