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Category — Birds

Giving Thanks: From Turkeys to Keas

As we prepare for Thanksgiving and think about what we are grateful for, I ask you to consider giving thanks to wildlife. Without bees, we wouldn’t have honey. Without snakes, we would be overrun with rodents. And without turkeys, what would we eat for Thanksgiving?

Wild Turkey (Photo: Dan Dzurisin)

Wild Turkey (Photo: Dan Dzurisin)

Believe it or not, wild turkeys were once on the brink of extinction. Due to unregulated hunting, turkeys actually disappeared from Ohio by 1904. Working together, government agencies and the hunting community established protective laws, hunting regulations, restocking programs and reforestation efforts that have enabled wild turkey populations to rebound.

Thank goodness, we didn’t lose the turkey, but there are many other species facing serious threats to their survival today, one of which is a New Zealand mountain parrot called the kea. Highly intelligent and neophilic (attracted to anything new), the kea is well adapted to its harsh, mountainous environment. Food can be hard to come by in heavy snow. Fortunately, the inquisitive kea is an opportunistic omnivore; it will try anything once and has the skill and determination to get it.

Keas (Photo: Andy H. McDowall)

Keas (Photo: Andy H. McDowall)

The traits that allow keas to take advantage of new resources and survive in a harsh environment—intelligence, curiosity and playfulness—are the same ones that get them into trouble with people. Many tourists’ cars have lost their windshield wipers and window sealing at local ski areas to the kea’s curiosity and long, sharp beak. Keas also get into trouble with farmers as they will peck at and feed off of sheep.

Kea "investigating" a car (Photo: Geof Wilson)

Kea “investigating” a car (Photo: Geof Wilson)

Damage done by keas is reported each year by private landowners, tourists, tourist operators and workers. Many more conflict events go unreported as people often deal with their concerns illegally. Although fully protected under the New Zealand Wildlife Act, an unknown number of keas are intentionally and illegally killed each year.

Current legal methods of conflict resolution include the relocation of keas or legal extermination of nuisance kea with a permit. Neither solution is considered particularly effective or sustainable. The resolution of human-kea conflict is critical to the successful conservation of the endangered parrot. However, to ensure success, a concise plan which fosters community support is vital.

The Zoo supports the efforts of the Kea Conservation Trust (KCT) to conserve wild kea in their natural habitat and increase the husbandry standards and advocacy potential of kea held in captive facilities. Collaborative projects include comprehensive population research incorporating satellite and VHF radio tracking, nest monitoring, and use of acoustic recording devices. The Zoo has also supported the development of kea repellents to reduce human-wildlife conflict situations.

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This year, the Zoo is stepping up its efforts to protect keas. Our Project Saving Species program is supporting the KCT’s Kea-Community Conflict Response Plan, which is a multi-year proactive community-focused conflict response and resolution program that aims to identify the nature of conflict experienced by people living within kea habitat, provide ‘first response’ during conflict situations, help people deal proactively to prevent problem situations arising in the first instance and research practical methods of conflict resolution in collaboration and partnership with communities and the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC).

Funds from the Zoo support a key personnel position, the Community Volunteers Coordinator (CVC). Having a CVC in place allows staff to respond proactively to conflict situations that arise. Funds will also enable KCT personnel to enhance their skills in conflict resolution by sponsoring staff attendance at the internationally recognized Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration Workshop in 2015. Additionally, Zoo aviculturists will join the KCT team in the New Zealand mountains for kea nest monitoring and field work over the next couple of years.

Kea Conservation Trust staff conducting kea research (Photo: Nigel Adams)

Kea Conservation Trust staff conducting kea research (Photo: Nigel Adams)

This Thanksgiving, as you gnaw on a turkey leg, take a minute to reflect on all that we have to be grateful to wildlife for and the fact that we can give back by helping those species, like the kea, that are struggling to survive. And then, make plans to come visit the kea at the Zoo this winter during Festival of Lights; Encounters will take place from 5:30pm to 6:30pm, Thursday through Sunday. They love the snow, and will be happy to take your donations to support kea conservation through Project Saving Species.

Kea collecting donations (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Kea collecting donations (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

November 11, 2014   No Comments

Creating a Condor Condo

If you are a frequent visitor to the Zoo, you might have noticed a new addition to our Andean condor exhibit as of late. With the tremendous help of some extremely dedicated volunteers, the Aviculture Department was able to research, help build, and install a nesting chamber for our breeding pair of Andean condors.

The finished nestbox installed in the Andean condor exhibit. You can see the entrance chamber for the birds on the right side of the box, along with a small window on the left side for the keepers to get a quick peek of the incubating bird if needed. This set-up is meant to give a more secure “cave in a cliff-like feeling” to the birds.

The finished nestbox installed in the Andean condor exhibit. You can see the entrance chamber for the birds on the right side of the box, along with a small window on the left side for the keepers to get a quick peek of the incubating bird if needed. This set-up is meant to give a more secure “cave in a cliff-like feeling” to the birds.

Background on the birds:

Like other vultures, Andean condors act as nature’s recyclers! Befitting their role of scavengers, condors have several physical adaptations to help them clean up the environment. Their strong, hooked beaks aid in holding and ripping food, while the lack of a well-feathered head minimizes contamination when dining upon carcasses. Not-so-obvious on the outside, the condor’s extremely strong and resilient digestive system is able to break down bone to obtain much-needed calcium as well as to kill the toxic bacteria that cause anthrax and botulism. All of these facets certainly reveal the condor’s important role in maintaining healthy, well-balanced environments.

Like many other long-lived (over 70 years) and slow-breeding (one chick every other year) species, however, the Andean condor is having some trouble keeping its own population in balance in the wild. It was first listed by CITES as endangered on July 1, 1975. Andean condors are currently listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This species historically had a significant range in South America, from Colombia and Venezuela to the Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego. They are exceedingly rare in the northern ranges of South America, and are most frequently sighted in Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Chile and Argentina. The condor is still subject to persecution by poisoning and gunshot over most of its home range, and it has been historically difficult to monitor the population in the wild according to the AZA Andean Condor Care Manual (2010).

Female Andean condor with her smooth-skinned, featherless head

Female Andean condor with her smooth-skinned, featherless head

The Cincinnati Zoo has participated in conservation efforts involving both the Andean condor and its even rarer cousin, the California condor, since 1989. Along with participating in the captive breeding program, the Zoo has also served as a staging area for North American-hatched Andean condors destined for release in their native country of Colombia. Juvenile condors and breeding pairs are housed at our off-site facility where they are conditioned for release into the wild. In the summer of 2013, a breeding pair of Andean condors was transported from the Zoo’s off-site facility to Miami, Florida, where they boarded a plane bound for Colombia. We have been ecstatic to hear reports from the Andean Condor Species Survival Plan that birds we have held here at the Zoo have produced chicks in the wild!

How can we increase the chances our condors here in Cincinnati will have a family of their own? Both of our birds – “Laurel” and “Gryph” – celebrated their 32nd birthdays this past June, so they are well within breeding age. They have lived in their display overlooking Wildlife Canyon since 2008, so should be well-settled. (Note: They first came to us when they were very young, left the Zoo in 1998, and then returned to us in 2008.) Since that time, we have recorded a lot of success with pair-bonding and copulating, and even with laying at least one egg per year, but unfortunately this pair has never successfully hatched out and raised a chick.

The idea of building a large protective nesting box that could mimic the wild cliffside caves the birds prefer as well as reduce the chances of egg breakage during the incubation process was formulated.

Cincinnati Zoo’s male Andean Condor, Gryph, shows off his fleshy head appendage, otherwise known as a carnucle.  Photo credit:  Josh More.

Cincinnati Zoo’s male Andean Condor, Gryph, shows off his fleshy head appendage, otherwise known as a caruncle. Photo credit: Josh More.

Background on the box:

Andean condors typically stand around four feet tall and can weigh up to 33 pounds. Thanks to its massive wingspan of 10.5 feet, this species can rightly claim the title of the largest flying land bird in the Western Hemisphere. Taking their overall size, enormous wingspan, and hooked flesh-tearing beak all into consideration, I knew this would need to be –by far– the largest and strongest nesting box we had ever embarked upon the creation of here at the Cincinnati Zoo!

Male Andean condor in flight in the wild.

Male Andean condor in flight in the wild.

Research and guidance provided by Aviculture Curator Robert Webster was critical in the development of a blueprint for our new Condor Condo. With a game plan in place, lumber, hardware and stain was purchased and transported to our most crafty carpenter, Mr. Bill Rettig, one of the Zoo’s Bird House and Manatee dive volunteers extraordinaire.

Bill worked out of his basement and garage during the construction process, while his wife generously gave up her indoor parking space! He also enlisted the help of several other family members and neighbors in the nest box building and installation process. Lucky for him, there are several engineers and mathematicians in the family. With the completed project weighing in easily over 300 lbs and measuring over six feet wide and six feet tall, this was truly a group effort!

Box installation inside the exhibit.

Box installation inside the exhibit.

The nest box was initially constructed in two separate pieces and then those sections were assembled carefully and securely together inside the Condor exhibit.

The nest box was initially constructed in two separate pieces and then those sections were assembled carefully and securely together inside the Condor exhibit.

What the keepers will be looking for this winter:

As part of their mating rituals, Andean condors typically perform courtship displays such as walking back and forth with outstretched wings and making hissing and clucking sounds. The male usually initiates this ritualized courtship display, approaching the female with his body upright, his neck arched, inflated and more intensely flushed with red, and with his wings fully open in a forward-curving arc. He walks stiffly, swaying from side to side. Initially he may make a hissing sound, similar to air brakes on a truck, followed by a deep, repetitive drumming sound that has been compared to a helicopter. If the female is interested, she will remain near him and may bite at his neck or wings, although not aggressively. Females may also engage in the wings-out courtship display, although typically not as elaborately or for as long as the male.

Andean condors are sequentially monogamous in the wild, often remaining with the same mate indefinitely. Eggs may be laid between March and June and fertility for established pairs is typically very high. Males and females share both egg incubation and chick rearing duties roughly equally. The egg incubation period for this species is 58-62 days.

Kim, Bill and the nest box installation gang!

Kim, Bill and the nest box installation gang!

Special thanks to Bill for his undying enthusiasm for this project, and his family for jumping in to help without question, even though nest box installation was a stinky, sweaty, tough job! Ultimately, success in collective Andean condor management and care will allow AZA-accredited institutions to contribute to Andean condor conservation and to ensure that Andean condors are helping to clean up the Earth we all share for generations to come.

September 23, 2014   No Comments

Passenger Pigeon Commemoration Gaining Momentum

We’ve been busy! Here’s an update on various projects and events we’ve been working on surrounding the commemoration of the centennial of the passenger pigeon’s extinction on September 1:

Passenger Pigeon Memorial Renovation

The Passenger Pigeon Memorial itself is of historic importance.  Built for the September 18, 1875 opening of the Zoo, it is the last remaining in a series of seven rectangular pagoda-type, tile-roofed buildings connected by wire summer cages in a complex 320 feet long, known as the Aviary or “Old Bird Run.”  The center building, larger than the others, was more elaborate, with pediments on each facade, and a short square tower capped with a pseudo-onion dome.  The six smaller units of the Aviary were demolished in 1974-75.  The large central pavilion, which was the actual final home of Martha, was retained, moved about 50 feet northwest of its original location, and restored as the Passenger Pigeon Memorial, opening in 1977.  Collectively with the Zoo’s Reptile House – the nation’s oldest Zoo building – and the Elephant House, built in 1906, the Passenger Pigeon Memorial constitutes the Zoo’s designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Postcard showign the original bird aviaries

Postcard showing the original bird aviaries

A reproduction of John Ruthven’s recently completed painting of Martha – the Last Passenger Pigeon, will draw visitors’ attention from the main Zoo path. 

John Ruthven's painting of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, will welcome visitors into the new space.

John Ruthven’s painting of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, will welcome visitors into the new space.

Inside the building, updated lighting and ceiling treatment will brighten up the space.  All new interpretive signage will comprise flat wall panels featuring rich visual images and appropriate narrative.

Passenger Pigeon Memorial under renovation

Passenger Pigeon Memorial under renovation

Inside the Passenger Pigeon Memorial under renovation

Inside the Passenger Pigeon Memorial under renovation

New walls ready for signage installation

New walls ready for signage installation

Putting the finishing touches on the restored doors

Putting the finishing touches on the restored doors

Artifacts such as a net and stool pigeon and wood carvings of a pair of passenger pigeons by our own Gary Denzler will be presented in the exhibit as well.

The new exhibit will feature wood carvings of a pair of passenger pigeons by Gary Denzler.

The new exhibit will feature wood carvings of a pair of passenger pigeons by Gary Denzler.

The update will speak to the conservation of endangered species, using the story of the passenger pigeon as a lesson from the past for a sustainable future. First, it will explain the story of the passenger pigeon and its extinction, why it happened, and the scope of this loss. Next, the exhibit will describe how the passenger pigeon’s extinction was a wake-up call that spurred the conservation movement in America, highlighting the stories of native species that were nearly lost, such as white-tailed deer.  Then, the exhibit will present examples of species’ conservation efforts in which the Zoo is involved, including the Sumatran rhino and Autumn buttercup. Finally, the exhibition will invite visitors to get involved.

The interpretive installation has begun!

The interpretive installation has begun!

The dedication of the newly renovated exhibit will take place on September 1 beginning at 12:30.

Fold the Flock: Paper Pigeons

We are in the midst of a folding frenzy! Thousands of paper passenger pigeons are being folded by summer campers, visitors, staff and volunteers, which will be suspended from the ceiling of the Education Center at the Zoo later this month.

Hard at work folding pigeons

Hard at work folding pigeons

A pile of paper passenger pigeons!

A pile of paper passenger pigeons!

Paper passenger pigeons hanging in the Education Center lobby

Paper passenger pigeons hanging in the Education Center lobby

Add your pigeon to the flock! Download the foldable passenger pigeon template, print it off (double-sided, 11 X 17, full color is best) and fold it. Then send it or bring it to the Education Center at the Zoo to be hung with thousands of others before September 1.

Passenger Pigeon Memorial Weekend

Along with the Ohio Ornithological Society (OOS), the Zoo is hosting a Passenger Pigeon Weekend symposium at the Zoo on August 29 & 30. Friday night will be a “Martinis with Martha” fundraiser to benefit the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) and the OOS Conservation Fund with food, drinks, live music and guest presentations. Saturday morning brings an assemblage of guest speakers with stories about lessons learned from the passenger pigeon, including Joel Greenberg (author of  A Feathered River Across the Sky), wildlife artist John Ruthven, Jim McCormac (author of Wild Ohio: The Best of our Natural Heritage) and Zoo Horticulturist Brian Jorg. And much, much more!

Registration is now open! Purchase your tickets here.

Barrows Conservation Lecture Series

On September 3, wildlife artist John Ruthven will speak as part of the Barrows Conservation Lecture Series at the Zoo. John Ruthven, naturalist, author, lecturer, and internationally acknowledged master of wildlife art, is often called the “20th Century Audubon.”

In 1974, John spearheaded the effort to save the last of the Zoo’s 19th Century bird pagoda’s – the one where “Martha,” the last of the passenger pigeons, had once lived. Through his leadership, and the sale of prints of his painting of “Martha,” the Zoo’s Passenger Pigeon Memorial was created.

John Ruthven with his painting, Martha - the Last Passenger Pigeon (Photo: Ron Ellis)

John Ruthven with his painting, Martha – the Last Passenger Pigeon (Photo: Ron Ellis)

Today, John has taken it a giant step forward, with his painting, “Martha – The Last Passenger Pigeon.” This print will be available for sale before and after his lecture. The price is $200.00. All prints are signed and numbered. The size is 30 x 20 inches.

Purchase tickets to John Ruthven’s lecture here.

To read the other posts in this series, click here.

August 25, 2014   No Comments