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Hand Rearing Kea: Behind the Scenes at Wings of the World

Here in the Wings of the World bird house at the Cincinnati Zoo, kea are all the hype this season. And this is with good reason. The success of the new interactive flight this past summer is noteworthy, but behind the scenes something just as exciting was occurring. The Wings of the World department includes an area off exhibit dedicated to incubating eggs and hand-rearing chicks.  This year we successfully hatched out and raised six kea chicks. Raising this species is a very time consuming process that requires the help of all the bird staff over the course of five months, from day one of incubation to fledging.

Artificially incubating eggs is a delicate endeavor. Eggs are fragile and sensitive; therefore it is vital to keep them in a clean environment with precise temperature and humidity settings. The bird department has four incubators dedicated to this, all set up for different species of birds that may require different parameters. Eggs are weighed and candled twice a week in order to closely monitor development. Candling is a technique used to see the developing embryo inside the egg. This technique indicates to keepers whether or not a chick is developing correctly, is in the right position for hatching, and when the hatching process has begun. Keeping track of weights is an indicator of whether or not humidity in the incubator needs to be adjusted. Kea egg incubation term is 21-28 days.

Kea eggs in the incubator

Kea eggs in the incubator

Once a chick has pipped (pierced the outer layer of the shell), it is moved to a different incubator where the temperature and humidity is ideal for hatching. It can take anywhere from 24-72 hours for a chick to hatch. All six of our kea hatched out on their own and proved to be strong and healthy when they were immediately standing upright and exhibiting a feeding response.

Kea chick mid-hatch

Kea chick mid-hatch

After a few hours, the chick can be moved to another enclosure, called a brooder. The brooder keeps the chick’s environment at a warm stable temperature. Keepers use washcloths and towels rolled up in a bowl to simulate a nest. As chicks grow and down feathers come in, temperatures and enclosures are modified to fit their needs.

One-week-old kea chicks in brooders

One-week-old kea chicks in brooders

Kea chicks are fed a specialized formula that meets all their dietary needs. The formula is made up fresh at each feeding and fed through a syringe. Weights are obtained daily and detailed notes are kept to ensure the chick is gaining the appropriate amount each day and hitting developmental milestones. The keas are initially fed every three hours, six times per day. That makes for a long day for the bird keepers! When the chicks start to become very mobile and curious with their surroundings, solid food is offered. Whether they play in it, walk in it, or sleep in it, it’s a good experience for them to have access to solids.  The bird staff spends a lot of time hand-feeding different food items in different forms until chicks begin to show interest. Overall, the best method to wean chicks is to have an adult kea around to show them how a real kea does it.

Five-week-old kea chick sleeping in its food plate

Five-week-old kea chick sleeping in its food plate

Once the kea are fully feathered and starting to self-feed, we begin daily field trips to the kea exhibit and holding areas. This gives the chicks an opportunity to adapt to a new environment, explore, exercise, and learn how to behave around adult keas.  As the chicks become more comfortable in this new environment, the longer they can stay out. The length of the trips and the need for supervision from keepers all depends on how the kea seem to be adapting. Overall, it takes around four months to hand-raise a kea and then fully integrate it into the flock. This is on par with a kea chick that fledges around 3-4 months of age in the wild.

Juvenile keas have a yellow cere (fleshy pad above the bill) that makes them distinct from adults.

Juvenile keas have a yellow cere (fleshy pad above the bill) that makes them distinct from adults.

Raising kea takes a lot of time and effort from the bird staff, but the reward is great. The Cincinnati Zoo is the only AZA-accredited institution to hatch out and raise kea in the last five years. What an accomplishment!  Next time you are at the Zoo, stop by the free flight aviary next to Wings of the World and see if you can spot one of our six juveniles, all grown up.

 

March 2, 2015   2 Comments

Paws Up for Polar Bears! Celebrating International Polar Bear Day

Today, let’s celebrate International Polar Bear Day with some fun facts illustrated by some of our own bears, past and present.

Polar bears are survival specialists in an extreme environment—the Arctic, where winter lasts six months and temperatures average -30ºF. Their large body size, thick fur coat and several-inch layer of blubber provide insulation from the cold, in and out of the water.

(Photo: Bud Hensley)

(Photo: Bud Hensley)

Here we can certainly get an idea of just how big a polar bear can be. Reaching weights up to 1,500 lbs, a large male can reach heights of more than 10 feet when standing up on its hind legs.

(Photo: Deb Simon)

(Photo: Deb Simon)

Check out those paws! Each one is the size of a dinner plate! They act like snowshoes, spreading out the bear’s weight as it walks across the snow and ice.

(Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

(Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Polar bears have super sniffers. The polar bear can sniff out seals, their favorite prey, from miles away and even detect seals that are hiding underneath several feet of snow.

(Photo: DJJAM)

(Photo: DJJAM)

Their streamlined shape, partially webbed front paws and buoyant layer of blubber make polar bears champion swimmers. In the wild, bears are able to swim for hundreds of miles at a time between ice floes, from which they hunt seals. As our global climate warms, the sea ice continues to shrink, making it increasingly difficult for polar bears to hunt seals and reproduce.

(Photo: ChengLun Na)

(Photo: ChengLun Na)

The Zoo partners with Polar Bears International as an Arctic Ambassador Center to help save polar bears and their habitat by reducing carbon emissions to curb climate change and encouraging our supporters to do the same. Here at the Zoo we are doing our part to use energy more efficiently by generating renewable energy through solar panels and geothermal wells and employing green building practices.

Solar canopy over the Zoo's main parking lot

Solar canopy over the Zoo’s main parking lot

We also have a brand new Red Bike Station located at the Zoo’s entrance. Next time you come to the Zoo, consider riding a bike to save on fossil fuels (once all this snow and ice is gone, of course). Check out some other ways you can take action for polar bears suggested by Polar Bears International.

Red Bike Station at the Zoo

Red Bike Station at the Zoo

Learn how the Zoo’s Center for Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) is also working to save polar bears with science.

 

 

February 27, 2015   2 Comments

Lion Keeper’s Blog: The Cubbies Meet Daddy John!

We’ve got a lot to catch up on! I imagine there is a phase of parenthood (probably sometime during the “Terrible Two’s”), where parents just stop making entries in the baby book because every moment is devoted to keeping your newly mobile and rebellious child in line. Any free time you might have (that would previously have been devoted to meticulously filling in the baby book) is now spent on precious sleep. That’s the phase Imani has been in for the last few weeks.

The cubs’ coordination, activity levels, and attitudes have grown by leaps and bounds, and the result is one very busy, very tired, and very tolerant momma lioness. Imani does her best to keep eyes on all three cubs and to intervene when the play gets too rough. She steps in if someone (usually “Willa”) is getting picked on by the other two. And she’s been spending an awful lot more time up on the high shelf: a much-appreciated respite from the cubbies who cannot yet access this secret get-away.

Imani_shelf

Imani on the shelf

Like any good mother, Imani is careful to vent her parenting frustrations out on anyone other than her cubs. Just the other day I was filling a bucket with soapy water to clean and I was greeted with a snarling Imani, hissing and charging at the mesh, giving me a full dose of 270 lb. cat-breath right in the face. Upon further investigation, I noted Kya relentlessly “attacking” Imani’s back leg like it was a fresh wildebeest kill on the Serengeti. If only there were another adult lion to take some of the focus off Imani.

Enter John.

Though lionesses in the wild will bring their cubs back to the pride as early as six weeks, we wanted to play it safe with our first-time father John, and so keepers waited a bit longer to make sure that their first meeting would be a positive one for all involved. After several weeks of “howdy’s” (where John got to interact nose-to-nose with his cubs through a protective mesh barrier), we decided that the time was right to open the door and let John meet his little “trouble cubbies” in person.

John tentatively stepped across the threshold and all five lions were sharing the same space for the first time. The first few moments were filled with an array of fascinating and fun vocalizations from the cubs. Uma, Kya and Willa huddled together close to mother Imani and stared up at John with interest and a little fear. John pressed himself against the mesh at the front of the enclosure and looked (appropriately enough) a little terrified himself. Imani stood protectively over the cubs and kept her eyes locked on John, ready to intervene if anyone stepped out of bounds.

Uma and Willa (from left to right) stare up at John.

Uma and Willa (from left to right) stare up at John.

It didn’t take long for the cubs’ brazen curiosity to outweigh any fear, and they approached John, displaying all the proper body-language of a submissive lion. They held their heads low, and looked up at John through their eyelashes. They cocked their heads from left to right and made friendly “greeting” vocalizations. Uma (our fearless little pioneer) was the first to approach John and tentatively sniffed and licked his back leg. John swung around, mouth agape and let out a warning bark to let Uma know “That’s close enough!”, and Imani promptly lunged forward, growled and gave John a swift paw to the face.

Uma jumps on John’s back.

Uma jumps on John’s back.

Kya gets an up-close look at John’s teeth.

Kya gets an up-close look at John’s teeth.

All three cubs scattered and ducked into a separate holding while John scrambled to get away and Imani pursued him with a mother’s wrath. At the end of the minor scuffle, John was left sitting in the corner with an appropriate look of bewilderment and apprehension on his face while Imani groomed her front paw, and a small tumbleweed of John’s mane settled on the ground between them. Clearly a line had been drawn in the sand: when it comes to these cubs, if you mess with them, you’ve gotta deal with Imani!

Now anyone who works regularly with John can tell you how smart he is, so it didn’t take long for him to learn this lesson. After things had calmed down, the cubs returned to visit with John again, and this time he did his best to keep a safe distance between himself and the cubs. Not wanting to incur Imani’s wrath for a second time, John dipped, dodged, and maneuvered around the cubs, crossing into separate holdings and even jumping up on the shelf to get away from them. He was content to just share space with them and not really interact beyond staring.

“There’s one behind me, isn’t there?” John seems nervous about Kya’s proximity to him.

“There’s one behind me, isn’t there?” John seems nervous about Kya’s proximity to him.

John investigates Uma from a safe distance.

John investigates Uma from a safe distance.

Over the course of the next several days, the keepers supervised as John would have “visitation hours” with his cubs. Each day, slow and steady progress was made. John altered his tactics and tried more gentle “huffing” vocalizations and avoidance behaviors to let the cubs know that he didn’t appreciate them climbing on his back. Imani stepped in and actively pulled cubs away from John if they were getting too bold or behaving inappropriately. The visiting sessions all tend to wrap-up in the same manner with the cubs finally giving up on pursuing John and instead opting for a nice long nap on the floor. John usually lays down next to them, seemingly enjoying their company during these quieter moments as Imani looks on protectively nearby.

The whole pride of 5 relaxing at the end of a visit.

The whole pride of 5 relaxing at the end of a visit.

Historically, John has always been appropriately submissive to Imani, reading her body language with pinpoint accuracy and always giving her the space she needs. He takes her corrections and discipline in stride and never retaliates. John’s laid back and gentle nature has always given me confidence that he would be a good father. We’ve still got a little ways to go before the whole pride can be left together and unattended, but we couldn’t have asked for a better start to the process. All five lions have behaved appropriately for the first introductions, and all signs point toward a cohesive and stable pride in the future.

Meanwhile, over in Kenya where the Zoo partners on a community-based conservation program called Rebuilding the Pride, Imani’s wild counterpart, Namunyak, has her paws full with her own new trio of cubs. Born sometime in late October or early November, Namunyak’s cubs are similar in age to Uma, Willa and Kya. And it appears that Namunyak and her cubs have returned to their pride right around the same time we introduced ours to John. Last week, following a much needed rainstorm, Namunyak and her cubs were spotted on a wildebeest kill, having rejoined their pride for the first time. Namunyak’s older set of cubs and another lioness, Ngiso, and her cubs were there as well. A total of 11 lions were counted in all. All the cubs were looking in much better condition than the last time they were photographed. With plenty of wildebeest calves around and more rain right around the corner, life for the lions as well as the Maasai and their cattle is looking up.

Namunyak and two of her young cubs (Photo: Guy Western/Rebuilding the Pride)

Namunyak and two of her young cubs (Photo: Guy Western/Rebuilding the Pride)

We are counting down the days until the warm weather of spring when we can finally share our pride with you all in person. Until then, we’ll continue to do our best to share pics, video, and blog posts with all of the lions’ adoring fans. As always, thank you so very much for your love and support! We’ll see you this spring!

February 26, 2015   11 Comments