Wild Earth Action Team: Protecting a tiny bird’s big habitat

What’s black, white and red all over? No, not a penguin with a sunburn. Try again. It’s the red-cockaded woodpecker! (The red part is actually just a small stripe on its head). Sadly, though, these little guys are nearly extinct.

But our Wild Earth Action Team (WEAT) is ensuring these birds keep pecking away for a long time. The team just wrapped their third annual trip to the Big Thicket National Preserve where they planted longleaf pines to help restore habitat for this endangered bird and other species.

For the red-cockaded woodpeckers to survive, they need to be able to safely nest – and they rely on longleaf pine forests to do that. So we’ve gotten to work, and over the past few years, the Dallas Zoo and a team of volunteers have planted more than 30,000 longleaf pines to reforest 300 acres for habitat.

“We’re thankful to all our volunteers, including the Dallas Zoo, who have played a vital role in the reforestation efforts in the Preserve,” said Jason Ginder, Park Ranger at Big Thicket National Preserve. “Re-establishing an ecosystem based on native plant communities is vital to a healthy forest. Longleaf pine trees thrive in the Southeast Texas climate, and make it ideal habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.”

We couldn’t make these expeditions happen without our rock star community joining us to protect Texas wildlife.

“Getting the chance to go on this expedition was probably one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been able to do,” said Jon V., Dallas Zoo Conservation Guide. “It felt so amazing to participate in the active conservation process and to help restore the habitat of the endangered woodpecker, so that hopefully one day, it will be taken off the endangered species list.”

We rely on people like you to help us reach our conservation goals. One of our most ambitious goals this year is to remove ten tons of litter pollution from wildlife habitats. Help us reach this by pledging to pick up just ten pieces of litter every Tuesday. It’s that simple! Learn about the Ten on Tuesday campaign here. You can also join us on one of our Wild Earth Action Team expeditions! We head to Corpus Christi March 2-4 to restore habitat for the endangered whooping crane, plus, we’re doing a ton of cool activities. Learn more about the trip!

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An inside look into hatching Caribbean flamingo chicks

Hatched just before Dollar Day in 2011, chick Buster was our first Caribbean flamingo baby in more than two years.

Bird keeper Marnie Bacon guest-blogs on Zoohoo! 

Dallas Zoo’s summer Dollar Day in 2011 was a hot and crowded one — and one our bird department will never forget. Spotted in the ZooNorth flamingo pond was a hours-old Caribbean flamingo chick. The little one hatched that day, making it the second Caribbean flamingo chick to hatch at the Dallas Zoo in more than 20 years. We named the first chick Buster, and our Dollar Day girl Georgia (after George Washington on the dollar bill, of course). We were so proud to have hatched these chicks, and today, they’ve come a long way.

Today, Buster is fostering his own chick.

This year’s Caribbean flamingo breeding season started the same as previous years — with a lot of hard work by the keepers to get the birds’ nesting area ready. Our close observations of the flamingo flock’s behavior year after year resulted in the knowledge of the ideal conditions needed for a successful season: building a moat, tilling the soil, and keeping the area desirable for flamingos to nest build.

This year, the birds built 30 nests and laid more than 20 eggs. To safeguard the eggs, we carefully collected all of them to be artificially incubated and provided the adults “dummy” or artificial eggs to incubate.

With colonial nesters, like flamingos, we have the opportunity to allow pairs that may otherwise lay infertile eggs, the chance to foster rear chicks. This year with our flamingo flock, there were four fertile eggs produced, two of which came from the same biological pair. Flamingos will only rear one chick at a time, so one pair that laid infertile

eggs was selected and provided the opportunity to raise a chick. But there are more than 60 flamingos in our habitat — so how do we choose?

Dallas Zoo’s successful breeding season has brought four new chicks to the Caribbean flamingo pond!

There are various factors that go into the decision process. Whether or not the pair is incubating a dummy egg, the timeframe in which the egg is hatching, and the behavior of the adults are all the main factors. It always makes us a bit nervous providing the opportunity to new parents, as we don’t know how they will do — but careful monitoring and proper surveillance by keepers ensures that the process goes smoothly!

This year, after weeks of relentlessly defending their nest mound, Georgia and her mate welcomed a very special chick who, coincidentally, hatched on Dollar Day. Buster and his mate were also carefully selected as a foster pair and are also now the proud foster parents to a chick that hatched on July 6.

Six years after that fateful Dollar Day, things have come full circle and these two birds now have chicks of their own! Come out to the Dallas Zoo and see these babies, and our two other chicks, grow up in the Zoo North flamingo pond.

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Bird fostering: How zoos pull out all the stops to save animals from extinction

Dallas Zoo Assistant Supervisor Marcie Herry gives San Antonio Zoo Senior Keeper Serenity Hyland one of two kori bustard eggs to be raised by the San Antonio Zoo.

What does it take to ensure the survival of a genetically valuable bird? Sometimes it means flying halfway across the country to pick up an egg and bring it back to Dallas to be fostered by a different set of parents.

This temperature controlled container was used to safely transfer the egg to the San Antonio Zoo

That was the case this spring bird season when a lappet-faced vulture egg was laid by a mom at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. The mom, unfortunately, didn’t have the best track record caring for her young. Luckily, the Dallas Zoo has a great set of lappet-faced vulture parents that could act as foster parents—yes, there are foster parents even in the animal kingdom!

Fostering like this and even hand-rearing are options that Association of Zoos & Aquariums institutions have to consider for new births or hatchings to conserve and save wildlife.

The lappet-faced vulture hatching is just one example of the decisions the Dallas Zoo deals with every spring with 700-plus birds on grounds, spanning more than 100 different species—many of which are endangered, declining, or near threatened.

When the parents aren’t available, sometimes zookeepers step in as the foster parents, like with a new kori bustard hatchling this spring. We’re hand-rearing one of these, and another two kori bustard eggs were picked up by the San Antonio Zoo, where they have the space and manpower to raise these chicks.

Eggs sit in an incubator at the Dallas Zoo

In other instances, zoos even cross-foster between similar species if the same species is not an option. For example, a lappet-faced vulture chick may be reared by a white-backed vulture and vice versa. This is done very carefully, and only in the right circumstances.

Regardless of what it takes to ensure a chick’s survival, the Dallas Zoo and other AZA-accredited zoos are doing everything it takes—from hand-rearing to fostering internally or even delivering eggs and chicks to zoos hundreds of miles away—to save animals from extinction.

The next time you peer out into the flamingo pond and see a unique species of bird, remember—it might have been raised by mom and dad, or it may have taken a different path, like being raised by humans, foster parents, or even a different species altogether.

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Wild Earth Action Team leads whooping success in Corpus Christi

The Wild Earth Action Team birding in Blucher Park

The Wild Earth Action Team birding in Blucher Park.

The Dallas Zoo works with partners around the world to save wildlife and protect wild spaces, but a major effort recently happened closer to home with some important Texas neighbors.

The team observes the endangered whooping crane in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

The team observes the endangered whooping crane in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

The zoo’s Wild Earth Action Team trekked south to Corpus Christi to restore coastal habitats in support of whooping crane conservation.

The whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America and migrates each year from central Canada to the Texas coast for the winter. The Dallas Zoo group dug in and got their hands dirty during a clean-up to help wildlife and their vital ecosystems.

The Wild Earth Action Team also took a four-hour adventure through the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, exploring the whooping crane’s winter grounds and observing 14 of these elegant birds. They even witnessed a rare moment when a whooping crane pair caught a snake and fed it to their young.

“It was thrilling to see whooping cranes up close,” said volunteer Becca Dyer. “I learned so much from the naturalists on the trip. I felt I was taking positive action participating in the beach cleanup.”

Removing litter from Corpus Christi's North Beach

Removing litter from Corpus Christi’s North Beach.

The entire experience was incredible for the team since this species once was so close to the brink of extinction. Our team of 23 volunteers and staff removed nearly 200 pounds of micro-litter along North Beach, including roughly 1,000 cigarette butts. Litter removal plays a key role in improving water quality and restoring coastal wetlands where many of the whooping crane’s food sources reside.

By the mid-1940s, only 15 whooping cranes existed in the wild. While still categorized as an endangered species, roughly 600 birds exist today due to the continued advocacy of conservation heroes across the United States.

“It made me feel overwhelmed with inspiration and gratitude for the conservation champions who went before us and stood up to save these cranes – all the work, the study, the policy advocacy, the habitat restoration and protection, the propagation and reintroduction by zoos and other conservation organizations – everything it takes to save animals from extinction,” said Ben Jones, dean of the Dallas Zoo’s Wild Earth Academy and trip co-leader.

Volunteers enjoy a visit to Dyers Aquarium

Volunteers Elizabeth Clay and Paul and Becca Dyer enjoy a visit to the Texas State Aquarium.

The weekend was filled with engaging learning opportunities as well. Alex Gilly, a bird keeper at the zoo, provided a fantastic presentation on the world’s 15 crane species as well as our role in crane conservation. The team was given a behind-the-scenes look at the Texas State Aquarium rehabilitation facilities, where they met an array of aquatic life and learned their unique stories. Dr. Liz Smith, the International Crane Foundation’s whooping crane biologist and Texas program director, even spoke to the group, providing an update on whooping crane preservation and efforts to combat the effects of climate change on coastal   wetlands.

All and all, the weekend stands as a whooping success for our Wild Earth Action Team as they extended the Zoo’s vision of creating a better world for animals. Still, it’s important to remember that conservation is a joint endeavor that requires dedication to produce results. It all starts with taking actions, no matter how small, and making sustainable changes.

The Wild Earth Action Team gathers for a group shot

The Wild Earth Action Team gathers for a group shot.

“Much of our conservation field efforts are done by volunteers who are a part of our Wild Earth Action Team,” said Julie Bates, director of Volunteers and trip co-leader. “This is a movement of volunteers that have a passion for nature and wildlife. The time and energy this team gives is priceless. Locally and across the state, we are creating a better world for animals by planting trees, restoring wildlife habitat, and cleaning beaches. We would love to have you join us on our next adventure!”

Stay tuned for more information about our next Wild Earth Action Team expedition when we travel to South Padre Island June 23–25 and work on Saving Sea Turtles.


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Animals visit brave patients at Children’s Health


The Dallas Zoo’s wonderful partnership with Children’s Health, one of the top pediatric health care providers in the nation, allows us to take patients’ minds off of the treatment they’re undergoing. Through the Simmons Animal Safari program, we’ve traveled to the hospital _MG_8354since 2014 for magical up-close animal encounters.

The Zoo recently paid a visit to Children’s Health with animal ambassadors who brought the smiles, including an opossum, a tamandua (also known as a lesser anteater), and an African crested porcupine with giant quills. Patients and their families sat eagerly, waving animal-themed masks as they waited to meet each new creature. As the Zoo’s Animal Adventures outreach team shared trivia and engaged with the kids, even hospital staff paused to see the show.

Engrossed in the moment, the kids animatedly shouted answers and shifted in their seats to see who they would meet next. The room came alive with excitement, spreading smiles from face to face as each animal ambassador said hello.

As penguin duo Sid and Jazz waddled into the spotlight, the room collectively gasped in delight, thrilled to meet two of our most beloved _MG_8383ambassadors. The kids enthusiastically asked questions as they learned about the Zoo’s African penguins. At the end of the presentation, patients and their families had the opportunity to take a photo with Sid or Jazz, capturing this moment forever.

As these brave families said their goodbyes to the animal ambassadors, we gifted them with one more surprise – each family was given tickets to the Zoo, including the patients who couldn’t make it down to meet us. We look forward to many future visits to Children’s Health, bringing enjoyment to these extraordinary kids and their families with each animal encounter.

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