Birds

Rare Egyptian vulture proves he’s special for many reasons

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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

Chicks galore! Another epic breeding season for bird team

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Dallas Zoo’s bird curator, Sprina Liu, guest blogs on ZooHoo!

It’s been another banner breeding season for the bird department and I’m here to share some of our successes! Each species has their own specific breeding season timeframes, so to truly say we’re done is not accurate. As I compose this, there are still more than two dozen eggs in incubators and nests. So while we’re not quite done yet, things are slowing down. We have a great team that works hard throughout the year and they’re the reason we are as successful as we are.  Here are just a few of the highlights:


_MG_1935-Caribbean flamingo chick-CB _MG_8812-lesser flamingo chicks-CB

Flamingos: Some of my favorites! We kicked off 2016 with another productive season with our lesser flamingo flock welcoming four chicks. More recently, we had an addition to our Caribbean flamingo flock in late June. Hopefully everyone caught the little cutie on social media!


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King vulture: We hatched this little one at the end of April. He/she has not left the nest yet but you might be able to catch a glimpse of this now large white fluff-ball peering out from the nest box in ZooNorth’s Wings of Wonder.


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African spoonbills: A record year for Dallas Zoo! We welcomed eight chicks – the most we’ve ever hatched. The breeding flock surprised us this season after they fledged their first five chicks. Normally once they’ve reared, they haven’t wanted to nest again. But we spotted the birds exhibiting nesting behaviors, so we encouraged them and three additional chicks hatched! This is unprecedented. Great observation skills by our keepers made this our best year yet. Although the main flock is off exhibit, you can see African spoonbills in our lesser flamingo habitat in the Wilds of Africa.


_MG_3856-Fulvous whistling duckling-CB _MG_8762-Ruddy Shelduck ducklings-CB

Waterfowl: We bred two species of waterfowl this year: a clutch of fulvous whistling ducks (left), and ruddy shelducks (right). Who doesn’t love ducklings? They’re still off-exhibit at the moment but you can see fulvous whistling ducks in the Zoo North flamingo pond and ruddy shelducks in the Wilds of Africa forest aviary.


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African penguin: Another one you may have caught on social media! Resident breeders Tazo and Tulip raised two chicks this season. Our two boys are doing well and have joined the rest of the flock on exhibit in Penguin Cove.


_MG_2161-marabou stork chicks in nest 4-19-16
Marabou stork: Dallas Zoo is making huge contributions to this zoological population. With 15 birds, we hold the largest population of this species in the North American region and bred three chicks this year, more than anyone else! Our management strategy and daily efforts with the birds paid off—one additional female that has never bred before raised a chick, and a second female that hadn’t bred laid two clutches of eggs. Though her eggs were not fertile, we have high hopes in the coming years! Look for these birds on the Wilds of Africa Adventure Safari.


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Yellow-billed stork: Dallas Zoo continues to play an important role with this species as well. This group is currently off exhibit, but we’re working on getting some on exhibit for everyone to enjoy. The group has produced two chicks this season. The interesting fact about this year is that they’re still not done! Like the spoonbills, the pairs, after rearing their chicks, are nesting again and this is unprecedented behavior for our group. The success of this bonus nesting period isn’t seen as we have eggs incubating and other pairs back nest building. Though we won’t know if the eggs are viable yet, it is a success in itself that the birds are still wanting to nest this late in the year.


_MG_2137-white-backed vulture chick-CB

White-backed vulture: Facebook goers should know about this one, too! Our little boy is not so little anymore. He hasn’t left the nest yet, but he’s working on figuring out his wings. Like his older sister in 2015, he is the only one of his species bred this year in North America. This important little guy brings the current U.S. population to 12 and for this critically endangered species, a successful breeding program may be crucial to aid their wild counterparts. We are very proud and honored to have received special recognition earlier this year from the AZA Avian Scientific Advisory Group for our achievement with this species. He can be spotted with his parents in the Wilds of Africa aviary across from the Simmon’s Hippo Outpost area currently under development.


As you can see, we’ve had quite the year so far, and these are just the highlights. We bred quite a few other species in cooperation with SSP recommendations and other facilities that were not even mentioned above but we’d be here all day! We’re looking forward to a short break (shorter than usual!) before this fall when we’ll be starting it all back up again. More updates to come!

Categories: Birds | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

More nectar, please! Meet our loving lorikeets

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IMG_1252 Lorikeets CS

Zookeeper Amanda Barr guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

Lucy

Lucy

To most people, a lorikeet is a lorikeet is a lorikeet. They look the same, they drink nectar, they interact with visitors. But when you actually spend time in Lorikeet Landing, you’ll discover that each bird is different and unique!

Most are rainbow lorikeets, but we also have two marigold lorikeets and five dusky lories. Lories and lorikeets are similar and fall under the same family of birds. Both are known for their specialized brush-like tongues designed specifically for drinking the nectar of soft fruits. There are a few differences, too: Lories are usually larger and have shorter, blunt tails, while lorikeets are smaller, with longer tails that end in a point.

We have 30 of these birds, ranging from 3 to 18 years old. Some are named after sounds they make – such as Volt, who mimics our radio batteries – or fruit they love, like Raspberry and Blueberry. Others have names with Australian meanings, like Dag, which means funny person or goof, and Sheila, which means woman. It takes some time to get to know each bird, but eventually they can be distinguished by looks, personality, and who they like to hang out with!

Let me introduce you to a few of our most distinguishable lorikeets:

 

Apple

Apple

• One of the easiest to identify is 5-year-old Lucy. She’s believed to be a hybrid between a rainbow lorikeet and a yellow-streaked lory. She’s all green with just a little red at the top of her head, which is why she’s affectionately named after “I Love Lucy.” She’s very friendly – she loves to steal nectar cups and fly away with them and unbutton shirts and jackets!

• Another easily identifiable bird is rainbow lorikeet Apple. He has a very noticeable gray ring around his eyes that extends all the way to his beak, making him look like he’s wearing glasses. He’s always one of the first to land on visitors when they walk into the aviary with cups of nectar. His best friend is Hop – they’re always getting into mischief together.

 

Part of the Dusky Pack

Part of the Dusky Pack

• Our pack of five dusky lories are a crowd favorite. These brown-and-orange birds are larger than the others, and Joey, Melody, Valerie, Sheila and Chiclet love to land on people in a big group and make lots of noise! Since they like to stick together, if one dusky lands on you, look out for the rest of the group coming your way.

• Some lorikeets are shyer and prefer to stay on a perch to be fed, including 13-year-old Guacamole. He is easily identified by the few missing feathers at the nape of his neck. Guacamole and his mate, Gladys, love making nests and typically can be found on the ground on the back side of the aviary. Guacamole loves nectar, but he prefers to be offered the cup while he’s on a perch, rather than an arm.

Linguini is the smallest lorikeet. He’s a marigold lorikeet and has a bright yellow chest and green belly, unlike the orange chests and blue bellies of the rainbow lorikeets. Linguini loves to sit on shoulders and upper backs and play with guests’ hair. He’s friendlier than fellow marigold lorikeet Macaroni, who’s typically found with her buddy Pickle.

Pigpen

Pigpen

• Bruin is one of the biggest personalities. He’s like the high school quarterback – all of the female lorikeets want to be with him! He knows how popular he is, too, and uses that to his advantage to get the females to share their nectar cups.

• The largest bird is another hybrid lory, Pig Pen. He’s a very distinctive black/iridescent green color with yellow streaks around his neck and chest. Pig Pen hangs out with the dusky pack, getting into trouble.

Sundrop is my favorite. (Shhh, don’t tell the others!) He was one of the first lorikeets I met when I started working here. I named him Sundrop because the band used to identify him is a light yellow, kind of matching the color of the Sundrop soda logo. He’s very friendly and enjoys giving “Sundrop kisses” to his favorite people. He loves to take baths and splash around in the water bowls. He’s also one of our more vocal lorikeets, often making a vocalization that sounds slightly like “pretty bird.” When he wants some quiet time, he’ll hang out in the middle window at the end of the aviary with his mate, Conan.

These are only a handful of our lovable ’keets, so mixing all of these personalities can be very tricky. It takes a lot of time, observation and creativity to keep them entertained. Their differences in personality also keep things interesting for us keepers. We each have our favorites, but all definitely hold special places in our hearts. Next time you visit, be sure to spend some time at Lorikeet Landing meeting all of our birds and getting to know them. Our staff will be glad to help you figure out who’s who!

Categories: Birds, Exhibits and Experiences | Leave a comment

Know when to help a baby bird

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baby cardinals

Baby cardinal hatchlings patiently wait for food from their mother.

Spring is here! And with it comes blooming flowers, rising temperatures, debilitating allergies – and baby birds.

Those chicks may find themselves out of the nest and helpless on the ground, but knowing basic information can save the animal’s life and benefit the environment. Learn more with information from Dallas Zoo Bird Curator Sprina Liu, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Audubon Texas.

(Consider this your first bird-keeper-in-training lesson.)

Know the bird’s stage of development

A hatchling is a recently hatched baby bird with little to no feathers and closed eyes. These birds are completely helpless and need help getting back into their nests, which should be nearby.

If the baby bird has open eyes and small tufts of feathers, it is likely a nestling, and needs some help. These birds are not mobile and need to be gently returned to the nest. Typically, the bird’s nest is directly above where the nestling is found.

A baby bird attempting to fly may be a fledgling. These young birds can be identified by short feathers and the ability to hop around, flap and grip onto your fingers. If you find a fledgling, the best plan is to step back and wait to see if an adult comes to tend to it. Despite being on the ground, most fledglings aren’t abandoned or helpless – they’re learning how to fly and move around!

Things to remember

• Before intervening with any bird, visually examine it to see if it’s hurt or injured. If you believe it is injured, contact your local wildlife rehabilitation specialist.

• Baby birds can be delicate and quick action on your part to return the chick to the nest or to a rehabilitation specialist can make the difference.

• It is OK to move a fledgling out of harm’s way if it’s found on a road or busy path.

• If you find a baby bird, it’s always a good idea to restrain, crate or put inside any domestic pets while you deal with the bird.

• When in doubt, leave the bird alone and contact an expert.

Baby bird fast facts

• It’s myth that parents will reject a baby bird handled by a human. Birds have a poor sense of smell.

• Nests aren’t the safe, cozy homes that humans envision. Birds are quick to leave the nest for safety and survival.

• The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made it illegal to capture and raise any wild migratory bird.

Categories: Birds | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Saving penguins: A nesting nightmare in South Africa

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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

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