Birds

Vultures make the world a better, cleaner place

Vultures are known as “nature’s clean-up crew” because they rid our environment of toxic animal carcasses. (White-backed vulture)

Vultures play a critical role in the environment and are beneficial to all animals, including humans. They consume carrion (or dead animals), which rids the environment of potentially deadly carcasses. “Without vultures, we would quickly be up to our necks in diseases that could severely impact our health,” says Dallas Zoo Bird Supervisor Kevin Graham. “It takes all vultures working as a team to fully clean a carcass.”

Ruppell’s vulture have long necks that help them reach interior organs within carrion.

Larger African vultures, such as the lappet-faced and white-backed varieties, get the job started once a carcass is initially detected. Lappet-faced vultures, with their large, powerful beaks are able to tear into tough hides to expose the meat within the carrion. White-back and Ruppell’s vultures, with their long necks, specialize in cleaning out interior muscle and organs. Then, in come the hooded vultures for the final clean-up. Hooded vultures are equipped with long, slender bills that allow them to get meat from harder-to-reach areas like between the ribs and inside the skull.

Sadly, these incredible birds are under siege right now when it comes to survival, including in Africa where they’re being poisoned by the thousands. African vulture populations have declined about 90% in the last 50 years, and if we don’t do something, they could very well be extinct within our lifetimes.

Vulture poisonings are two-fold. Farmers will poison large carnivores that threaten their livestock – like lions and wild dogs. The vultures consume the poisoned carcasses and die as a result. Poachers have also begun intentionally poisoning the carcasses of their illegally hunted animals in order to kill off vultures who may give away their location to authorities, which is even more alarming.

Fortunately, accredited zoos and aquariums, including your Dallas Zoo, are working hard to ensure the survival of African vultures and countless other species through Species Survival Plans (SSPs) as well as promoting pro-wildlife behaviors. We care for eight different species of vultures at the Dallas Zoo, and we take pride in educating our community about the importance of saving these amazing birds.

We care for 8 different vulture species at the Dallas Zoo, several of which are breeding pairs through their respective SSPs. Each season that the bird team welcomes a baby chick is a major success for their endangered species.

Once a chick hatches, the Dallas Zoo bird team works tirelessly to make sure that the precious baby bird has everything he or she needs to thrive. “We check the chick daily to ensure it is in healthy body conditions and to make sure their wings, feet and eyes are all working and growing properly,” Graham says. “We also closely monitor their current weight and adjust their diets as necessary. Because they clean carcasses, we have to provide them with a diverse diet that’s nutritionally balanced.”

Categories: Africa, Birds, Conservation | Leave a comment

Dallas Zoo helps release flamingo chicks back into the wild after life-saving emergency rescue in South Africa earlier this year

49 lesser flamingo chicks were released back into the wild in South Africa earlier this week!

In January, the Dallas Zoo was part of an unprecedented rescue effort after 1,800 lesser flamingo chicks were abandoned at their nesting grounds due to severe drought. But the work was far from over. Animal care professionals have worked tirelessly over the past four months to nurse the chicks back to health, and this week the Dallas Zoo helped lead a team in Kimberley, South Africa in the release of 49 of those chicks back into the wild. The rescue, rehabilitation, and release of these birds has never been done before, until now.

The drought affected Kamfers Dam in Kimberley, the capital of the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, causing adult flamingos to abandon their nests, leaving thousands of eggs and chicks behind. With only four breeding colonies of lesser flamingos in Africa and one other in India, Kamfers Dam is one of the most important breeding locations for this species in the world.  

The Dallas Zoo led the effort to funnel emergency funding to South Africa in coordination with the Pan African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA), sending more than $52,000 from U.S. zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). In addition, AZA-accredited institutions sent 53 of their top U.S. animal care experts and vet teams to help in the mission. The Dallas Zoo contributed $18,500, sent ten of its staffers, and funded the trips for five additional experts to lend their support. Harrison Edell, Dallas Zoo’s Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Conservation, is there now to assist in the release.

“We’re feeling intense relief right now knowing a release of this magnitude has never been done before,” said Edell. “It was a massive undertaking to rescue these flamingos, get them healthy, prepare them to reenter the wild, and then watch them go. The zoo community really stepped up to make this happen and help keep these birds alive.”

The 49 birds were the first group to be released back into Kamfers Dam after they were deemed the most fit for the initial release. Animal caretakers have worked around-the-clock to keep the hundreds of birds alive.

“It’s been a delicate balance – since January, we’ve worked hands-on with the chicks to keep them fed and healthy, but as they’ve grown, we needed to be hands off to ensure they did not imprint on us. We needed to know that they were not interested in people, and only birds, before they were cleared for release,” said Edell.

Each bird also went through a physical health exam, and was given a leg band and microchip before the release. A few chicks will remain in human care, including one that is blind and a few with wing injuries. Those not fit for survival in the wild will become ambassadors of their species at PAAZA-accredited zoos.

Hundreds more flamingo chicks are set to be released in the coming weeks.

“It’s been incredible to release our first flock and see them walk toward the other 20,000 wild adult flamingos at Kamfers Dam, and just fit right in. We hope they continue to thrive,” said Edell.

More AZA experts will travel to South Africa to see the final releases through, and U.S. officials will continue to be a sounding board on the project to ensure future success for all of the birds.

Lesser flamingos are currently listed as near threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Species (IUCN), primarily due to habitat destruction and climate change. It is the smallest species of the six species of flamingos in the world. They’re found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of India.

Categories: Africa, Birds, Conservation | Leave a comment

FIELD NOTES PART II: Installing nests on Bird Island

Penguins on Bird Island investigating my camera.

Animal Care Supervisor of Birds and the Artificial Nest Development Project Coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Kevin Graham, guest blogs on ZooHoo!

After spending a day at the African penguin artificial nest manufacturing facility, it was time to head to Addo South African National Parks (SANParks) to meet the Marine Ranger team. This entailed an arduous drive along a pitted dirt road to the departure point for the helicopter that would ferry all of us across the ocean to our first penguin colony, Bird Island.

The artificial nests destined for this round of installation on Bird Island had arrived the day before, or at least most of them had. As is often the case, the reality of a situation doesn’t always match up with the plan that was put into place.

The group arrived at the “helipad,” a flat clearing in the middle of the massive sand dunes that’s used to land the helicopter and sling equipment over to the island. The artificial nest team members met the Addo SANParks Section Ranger, the island Colony Manager and a team of marine rangers and other local staff for a rules briefing. Bird Island is a destination that very few people have the opportunity to visit – it’s not accessible to the public at any time, and in normal circumstances the only people lucky enough to spend time on it are either rangers or field researchers that have received authorization. Our strong working relationship with Addo SANParks over the years allowed the nest project to do something that is extremely rare – bring a large team of non-locals to the island to work.

The team boards a helicopter to travel to the remote Bird Island.

With all of the gear, supplies and equipment ready, we had nothing left to do but eagerly await the arrival of the helicopter. The pilot has worked closely with Addo SANParks for quite a long time and is extremely helpful with access to the island. The only ways to get to Bird Island are via helicopter or by a boat trip that can range from two to five hours each way, depending on water conditions.

Several flights would be needed to transport the nests and the remaining supplies to the island, with the weight slung in a cargo net beneath the helicopter. The maximum weight capacity for the airlift on a calm day is only about 550 kilograms, the equivalent of 37 completed nests. We had 300 nests ready to be transported, in addition to the necessary supplies to survive four days on an island with little in the way of amenities.  We estimated that we’d need approximately 10 trips across to carry all of the people, supplies, nests, and equipment.

The forecasted calm weather gradually turned into high winds after a couple trips across the ocean, which caused excessive air turbulence. This meant that fewer nests moved per airlift. The wind also didn’t cooperate on the next couple of days, so the remaining nests weren’t able to be transported until Friday, Feb. 22. Unfortunately, this was the last day the artificial nest group was slated to be on the island. On the plus side, the Marine Ranger team from Addo SANParks was trained in the assembly method for the nests and are familiar with the process of placing the nests correctly.

Members of the artificial nest team worked from early morning to the end of the day on any and every task that needed to be accomplished during our four-day stay on Bird Island. This included assembling the 35-pound artificial nests, carrying them into the colony from the boat house on the far end of the island, updating and maintaining the precision electronics used to monitor the nests, cleaning up marine debris, surveying for sick and/or injured birds, removing the older, ineffective nests from many years ago, GPS tagging of the new nests, and documenting the work. With the help of the dedicated Marine Ranger team from Addo SANParks, the nests were assembled and moved into place for the penguins to begin using.  Since we had the equipment and knowledge, the nest team members also were able to work on the desalination plant for the island, which had been broken and unusable recently.

A penguin quickly makes use of one of our artificial nests.

In the long run, the four days of work went off mostly without a hitch, and everything that was intended to be finished was accomplished.

And, if you’re wondering if all of this is worthwhile… within 24 hours of the new nests being put into place, the occupancy rate was already 57%. In a massive surprise to all of us, one overly ambitious hen even laid an egg in a new nest less than half a day after it was placed. The feeling of awe is overwhelming, watching her look for somewhere she could safely incubate her egg and potentially raise a chick. It’s even more so when we realize we’ll provide thousands of birds this same opportunity of safely raising their offspring during the course of the project.

And on that note, we’ll be leaving Port Elizabeth to head to the Western Cape, where we’ll work in several more colonies. But first: a very long, very hot shower for us to wash about three inches of dirt away.

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Penguins | 2 Comments

FIELD NOTES PART I: Saving African penguins in South Africa

Kevin Graham examines the artificial nests at the nest manufacturing factory.

Animal Care Supervisor of Birds and the Artificial Nest Development Project Coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Kevin Graham, guest blogs on ZooHoo!

Our time caring for the 1,800 rescued little stinky grey and fluffy birds (a.k.a. flamingos) came to an end yesterday, and we’ve moved on to the bigger stinky black and white birds (a.k.a African penguins). We’re about to depart on helicopter to Bird Island, where we’ll make about a half-dozen trips back and forth to the deserted island that will be our home for the next four days. This is where we’ll install hundreds of artificial nests for the penguins to safely lay their eggs in and rear their offspring.

But first, we worked on an incredible side project today at the penguin nest manufacturing facility in Cape Saint Francis, South Africa. I was able to inspect the work being done, and talk with the folks who have been building the nests, since the manufacturing site opened up a little over a month ago. This site is being coordinated under the watchful eye of Trudi Malan of Dyer Island Conservation Trust. This location is currently home to many tons of raw materials that are being converted into penguin nests at a rate of about 20 nests per day. While this doesn’t sound like a lot, these nests are 100% made by hand and have a very specific formulation of products that has to be prepared and a significant amount of materials that have to be worked in the exact order in order to properly build the nests.

The construction team builds the nests, which involves a very detailed process.

The team members that are building the nests have not only become very efficient and skilled at the process, they’ve also begun to understand that the project they are assisting with is destined to make an improvement in the lives of an endangered species. These team members have a strong and growing pride in the work that they are doing and it shows. For many of them, this job is helping them learn new skills and offers them financial assistance. But more than that, they see their role of building the nests as a part of a bigger picture that can potentially save the lives of birds that desperately need help.

To construct the nests, they begin with preparing the Sealmac geotextile fabric cutouts, which will be used as the skeleton of the nest construction process. These individual pieces of geotextile fabric are then thoroughly impregnated in a ceramic slurry composed of a very specific ratio of several compounds. If the ratio of compounds is out of balance by even a small amount, the overall strength and integrity of the end product can be compromised. Each piece of the geotextile fabric is layered onto the mold in a very specific sequence, which builds up the integrity of the structure. Once the numerous pieces of slurry-filled fabric are all securely in place on the mold, they cure for at least 24 hours until any further work can be done.

Dallas Zoo’s Senior Zoologist Julie Farrington also inspects the nests.

The next day the finished nests are removed from the molds and moved into the drying area to allow these completed pieces to continue curing for at least another 48 hours. Any work that is attempted during this curing time would have a strong likelihood of causing damage to the nest structure that would be very difficult to repair. Once a period of 72 hours minimum has passed, the pattern for the ventilation holes in the nest is traced onto the nest structure, and the ventilation holes are drilled. This pattern has been designed to increase the thermal venting of the nest structure on hot days and is a critical component in the thermoregulation inside the nest.

When looking at the end product of the nest, it doesn’t look like something that would be all that complicated, however there is a tremendous amount of science and research that went into the development of these penguin nests. Between the materials research; the design research; the multiple extensive rounds of testing; and finally the ongoing construction of the finished product that is beginning to be installed in colonies, this has been a very unique challenge. Recreating the perfection of Mother Nature is not an easy task, but thanks to the dedication of the nest project team consisting of members from Dyer Island Conservation Trust, Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria, the Dallas Zoo/AZA SAFE, and especially those people and organizations that have believed enough in the potential of providing homes for endangered penguins, we are confident that we’ve come as close as possible.

Really early tomorrow morning (which will be really late at night for you guys in the U.S.), we’ll be departing for Bird Island to begin installing the first of the finalized nests in the colony there. Thanks to the ongoing support and assistance of ADDO SANParks, we will be transporting the nests and supplies over to Bird Island by helicopter. This saves a huge amount of uncertainty in access to the island since it’s a two hour boat trip each way in calm waters or up to a five hour boat trip each way in rough waters, which usually ends up with a large number of the team members leaning over the edge and relieving themselves of their breakfast. More to come later, assuming we survive.

There’s a whole lot more in the way of photos and videos to come, so stay tuned as I continue to update you with field notes on this unprecedented project to save endangered African penguins.

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

Dallas Zoo helps lead international emergency rescue to save over 1,800 flamingo chicks in South Africa

Two of the rescued lesser flamingo chicks cuddle up at the SPCA in Kimberley, South Africa.

The most urgent, wide-scale rescue of wild lesser flamingo chicks in South Africa is underway after 1,800 chicks were found abandoned at their nesting grounds. The international zoo and aquarium community has joined forces to help save the chicks in a massive rescue operation, sending critical funds and avian experts from across the world to South Africa.

A severe drought has affected Kamfers Dam in Kimberley, the capital of the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, causing adult flamingos to abandon their nests, leaving thousands of eggs and chicks behind. With only four breeding colonies of lesser flamingos in Africa and one other in India, Kamfers Dam is one of the most important breeding locations for this species in the world.

Dallas Zoo’s Senior Zoologist Julie Farrington hand feeds a rescued chick.

The Dallas Zoo is leading an emergency rescue effort to funnel funding to South Africa in coordination with the Pan African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA). The Dallas Zoo has contributed $18,500 to the rescue effort, and is sending multiple waves of support staff to Kimberley. Animal Care Supervisor Kevin Graham and Senior Zoologist Julie Farrington arrived in Kimberley last week, and Dallas Zoo veterinarian Dr. Marren Connolly and veterinary technician Cassandra Reid arrived Sunday and will remain there for three weeks.

Multiple accredited U.S. zoos and aquariums have also contributed nearly $20,000 to the rescue mission, with donations continuing to roll in. (For individuals who would like to donate to the recovery effort, please do so HERE.)

“If the zoo community had not stepped in to help, it is unlikely these chicks would have survived,” said Harrison Edell, Dallas Zoo’s Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Conservation. “Flamingos have rarely been treated in any significant numbers by wildlife rehabilitation facilities. Since we are backed with decades of experience in this, our animal care experts are uniquely qualified to assist in hand-rearing these orphaned lesser flamingos. The world’s accredited zoos and aquariums are no doubt at the forefront of lifesaving conservation work, and we will continue to send our experts to the frontlines when animals need help.”

“To see our worldwide community of wildlife conservationists come together to save these birds from near death is remarkable,” said John Werth, Executive Director of the Pan African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA). “Zoos and aquariums have the resources and expertise to save species and our swift action to protect these flamingos is proof of that.”

The 1,800 chicks are being cared for at a number of PAAZA accredited zoos and aquariums, plus, certified partners like SANCCOB, as well as, by staff at the SPCA in Kimberley. An international team of conservationists, zoologists, vet staff, and more are working around the clock to bring the chicks up to good health. The ultimate goal is to release the birds that have been successfully rehabilitated back into their natural habitat by late May, so they can rejoin the flock.

“We’re working 12-hour shifts at the SPCA in Kimberley where the youngest and most critically ill flamingo chicks are being cared for,” said Kevin Graham, Dallas Zoo’s Animal Care Supervisor of Birds. “We hand feed the chicks every few hours, and are constantly monitoring their health. We are running on very little sleep but it’s extremely rewarding work knowing we’re keeping these incredible birds alive.”

With nearly 20,000 birds nesting at Kamfers Dam, a significant hit to the flock could pose long-term problems for the population without intervention. Conservationists are working to implement a detailed plan of action for the future, should a rescue mission like this occur again.

Lesser flamingos are currently listed as near threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Species (IUCN), primarily due to habitat destruction and climate change. It is the smallest species of the six species of flamingos in the world. They’re found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of India.

The Dallas Zoo cares for more than 30 lesser flamingo chicks in the Wilds of Africa section of the zoo.

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

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