Written by Bird Keepers Rene Ryan, Danny Keel and Mollie Coym
The Houston Zoo has played host to the St. Vincent Parrot since 1968. Our first resident was an outgoing young female named “Vincent”. She was later paired up with a male and housed in the Tropical Bird House for all guests to experience. We are proud to have achieved, with help from “Vincent”, the first successful captive hatch (worldwide, mind you!) on April 25, 1972. The zoo has played an important role for this species ever since.
This Houston Chronicle article from 1970 featured the first St. Vincent Amazons at the Houston Zoo.
Our most recent hatch, “Vincent Deuxieme”, occurred on May 28, 2008. She was hand-raised by Bird Department Supervisor Chris Holmes and the Bird Staff, which entails hand feeding every two hours from sun up to sun down. Her moniker was borrowed from the female who started it all. “Vincent” is currently living the good life next to her parents in our Off Exhibit Facilities.
The Houston Zoo made headlines in 2008 as we welcomed the hatching of Vincent Deuxieme
To learn more about this exotic and fascinating species and their history here at the Houston Zoo, join us on Sunday, September 4th at the St. Vincent building (near Stormy the bird bank) for our Spotlight on the Species. Keepers will be hosting fun activities, providing information and answering any questions you may have about this special parrot from 11 AM until 3 PM.
**Don’t worry, this isn’t Myspace or Facebook. You won’t see an awkward bathroom mirror self-portrait in this post.**
The Houston Zoo‘s Tropical Bird House is the proud home of two pairs of Micronesian Kingfishers (Todiramphus cinnamomina cinnamomina) some of the most endangered birds in the world. A survey performed by USFW in 1981 showed some 3,000 Micronesian Kingfishers to be living on Guam. By early 1985, the birds numbered a measly 50. The remaining kingfishers were then captured from the wild and brought into captivity in an effort to save this species from complete annihilation. What caused this massive destruction? The introduction of the Brown Tree Snake onto the island decimated all avifauna.
Unfortunately, sometimes it’s easy for me to forget that I take care of animals most people may never have an opportunity to see . In particular, I care for one animal that is so rare, it is no longer seen in the wild. EXTINCT IN THE WILD. Those are not words to take lightly.
This spring, I was reminded of how lucky I am to be working at the Houston Zoo. Our younger pair of Micronesian Kingfishers had not only one, but two, chicks! With birds this rare, keeper staff often hand-raise the chicks, to ensure they survive and grow into healthy adults. Often, there is a trade-off with this practice, as many birds become imprinted on humans and do not grow into good breeders themselves later in life. Kingfishers, however, are not very susceptible to imprinting upon humans, and the only difference we have noticed with hand-raised kingfishers as adults seems to be that they are the first ones to the food in the morning.
So as it was, I found myself with two extremely rare, extremely small, extremely helpless little chicks to raise. These two chicks were 5 and 6 grams upon hatching, and it was the job of myself, and the two other Tropical Bird House keepers to feed them, day and night.
Our pair of Micronesian Kingfisher chicks, as seen from above, approximately one week old.
When keepers hand-raise a bird, we often have to take it home with us, as the feedings can last well into the night, and with some birds, like parrots, are a FULL time job. Thankfully, the kingfishers only require night feedings until 8 pm, and after a few weeks, can be left overnight at the zoo. Until then, however, they spend the night in my bathroom, and are fed every two hours from 6 am to 8 pm.
Our hand-raising station at the zoo. I promised you there would be no pictures of my bathroom.
I can almost hear you asking, “Why the bathroom?” Well, there are several reasons. First, like most zoo keepers, baby birds are not the only animals in my house, and when I take them home, I like to know there is no possible way for a Micronesian Kingfisher chick to come into contact with say, my ten year old house cat. Living in the bathroom allows the kingfishers to have two doors between them and any kind of living life form except myself. Secondly, bathrooms are easy to clean. Kingfishers are carnivores, and carnivore poop is not something I want on my carpet.
Once you get into the habit of having baby birds in your life outside of work, it become pervasive. As a younger keeper who changed apartments every year or so, I included in my new home search the idea that eventually, I may need an ideal spot to park a baby bird for the night. I can’t tell you how many friends have heard, “I have baby birds”, as the reason I can’t go out. It causes late nights and early mornings, and an enormous sense of responsibility can wakes me up several times a night to check on the chicks. Some people say it’s being a parent.
Our two chicks are almost fully grown, and have been spending their nights at the zoo for several weeks now. This, I suppose, is the equivalent of being a parent of a college graduate. You just know they are going to go on to do great things.
Our male chick, 30 days old, being taught to eat on his own.
As a keeper, our version of parenthood is a little different. I’ve raised two generations and about six kingfisher chicks, and currently, our Micronesian Kingfisher pair is incubating two more eggs. Thank goodness there is no empty nest syndrome for this mom. The birds can’t afford it.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of being a bird keeper is the sheer amount of diversity in natural behavior we see in the animals. It’s also daunting. Each species is a little different, they may prefer to nest on the ground, on a platform high in the exhibit, in a small nest cup, precariously perched on several delicately balanced twigs, in a cavity, or in an intricate nest they’ve woven themselves. They might prefer fruits, vegetables, grains and seeds, meat or nectar. Their social structures can vary so greatly I am not even going to attempt to list the prominent examples. The Houston ZooBird Department houses approximately 230 different species. That’s not the individual animal total (which is around 900, by the way), it’s how many different types of birds we care for every day, each one varying in large and small ways.
This means we see all kinds of avian fathers, from the good, the bad and the ugly. Captivity is a little different. If the normal breeding behavior of a male is to mate and leave, keepers have to follow the breeding cycle of the birds closely and then act appropriately to the situation. Do we keep the dad in the area with the female while she incubates the eggs? In this particular species, does the male help incubate? Does the male help raise the young? Will the male show aggression to juveniles once they’ve left the nest? There’s a myriad of questions for each situation. Fortunately, sheer diversity in behavior provides me with so many weird and wonderful stories of avian fatherhood.
Not all mommy birds are June Cleavers. In mammals, the female produces milk and feeds the young, but a male bird can do everything a female bird can, except lay eggs. This results in male birds typically being very involved in the raising of their young, because they can have a tangible and direct hand in the success of the offspring. Monogamy is quite rare in other groups of animals, but over 90% of birds form monogamous pairings, for at least one breeding season. This pairing doesn’t just involve the male gathering food for the chicks. Often, male birds help in the construction of nests, incubation of the eggs, and feeding the young while in the nest and even after fledging, as well as defending their nest and territory.
Hornbills take this monogamy to an extreme. Before laying eggs, a female hornbill of the subfamily Bucerotinae, such as our Rhinoceros Hornbills, will enter into a tree cavity and begin to “mud” herself in, sometimes assisted by the male. Essentially, sticky material such as mud, food and fecal matter is gathered and plastered around the opening of the cavity, until the opening is just large enough for the female to fit into the cavity. At this point, the female enters the cavity and the opening is almost completely sealed shut, except for a small slit, conveniently beak-sized.
At this point, the female is entirely dependent on her mate to provide her with food while she incubates the eggs, for approximately 40 days. Once the chicks hatch, both mother and babies are fully dependent on the food brought to the nest by the father. When the chicks are large enough to leave the nest, the male and the female chip away at the sealed entrance and the brood makes a break for it. Meanwhile, the father continues to support the family by collecting food for the female and chicks. Talk about a breadwinner!
Our male Sunbittern male has all the traits of a good father. He’s a great provider and very protective of his family.
What this video doesn’t show is how much this bird prepares for a chick. Once the egg hatches, the baby gets the lion’s share of the food, and the parents won’t eat anything until the chick is full. This equates to some lean times ahead for dad, so once an egg is laid, keeper staff are greeted in the morning with a male Sunbittern, standing at the door of the kitchen, waiting to be tossed food. We oblige, of course. During this time, he’s bulking up! Once the chick arrives, the male does the same, except instead of scarfing down the food himself to prepare for the fast, he brings the food straight to the chick on the platform, and won’t stop ‘demanding’ food until that chick is content. Would you like to reconsider your idea of “bird brain“?
Dad and chick
The happy family at meal time. Dad is providing a mealworm.
If you’ve watched March of the Penguins, (and if you haven’t, you MUST!) you know that penguin dads (and moms) are fantastic parents, in some species bringing themselves to the brink of starvation to care for their eggs and young.
Raising two chicks is a big task!
In the avian world, there are few things more endearing than the single father. In some species of birds, the male is the sole caregiver for not only the chicks, but the eggs as well. Darwin, our Double-wattled Cassowary, is a wonderful and larger than life example. Cassowaries are solitary animals, and they only come together for breeding. Once the female has laid her eggs in the nest the male constructed, she takes off to find herself another male with another nest. The previous male is left to incubate the eggs and care for the young.
When incubating, the cassowary is so dedicated that, despite all scientific reasoning, he spends approximately 53 days without leaving the nest, without even STANDING UP. He doesn’t eat, or take in much water, and somehow, he doesn’t even use the bathroom. It’s like he goes into a torpor of fatherly devotion. Once those eggs hatch, it’s been said by many that the only thing meaner than a female cassowary is a male cassowary, once you come between him and his chicks.
Darwin, our own cassowary, recently decided it was time for him to become a father. Unfortunately, Darwin’s mate is still on the horizon, and there were no eggs to be had. Paternal instinct fueling invention, Darwin took his large green food bowl, flipped it over, and began to incubate the bowl in earnest. Keepers have begun feeding him in a bowl that cannot be moved, as it became impossible to feed the bird. In a frenzy of devotion to his “egg”, the most food-motivated bird I have ever known, refused to eat, as any good cassowary dad should.
Darwin, incubating his food bowl.
As the title says, it takes all kinds in the world of birds, and I would be remiss not to mention all the keepers in my department that step in to play the role of “Dad”. Not all bird fathers have feathers. We frequently, for one reason or another, have to hand raise baby birds, and all of our bird keepers have had a go at being a parent.
Danny, preparing to feed a turaco chick.
Joshua, with a tiny duckling.
Jeremy, teaching a kingfisher fledgling to eat on its own.
A better look at that turaco chick, because no one puts baby in a corner.
Finally, I couldn’t write this blog without mentioning a bird near and dear to many of our staff. While he never got to be a father, he was the most generous bird dad I’ve been privileged to witness. As I mentioned above, we take care of 900 animals. It’s not common for bird keepers to get particularly attached to any one bird, as the less interaction we have with them and the more “wild” they are, the better. However, sometimes a bird comes along with some quirks that you just can’t ignore, and they take root in a special place in your heart. Our male Blue-crowned Laughing Thrush did just that.
Blue-crowned Laughing Thrush
This bird’s paternal instinct was so ingrained, that all baby birds were his babies. He lived a good long life in our Tropical Rainforest exhibit, and anytime a chick hatched, he was there, attempting to feed it, much to the chagrin of many a protective feathered parent in the vicinity. That’s not to mention that most dove chicks never understood why they were being given worms, instead of their normal diet of crop milk. However, some birds took advantage of his paternal ways, and our adult lorikeets were treated to a worm by the Laughing Thrush every time they squeaked like a nestling.
Several weeks ago, the Bird Department was saddened by the death of his mate. Throughout his last weeks, the Laughing Thrush seemed to decline without his female by his side, and surrounded by a red-eyed and sniffling bird staff, he left us. We remember him fondly and it’s only fitting that he is mentioned whenever the subject of avian fatherhood is discussed.
Celebrate Dad by giving him a memorable Father’s Day gift this year – name a Houston Toad after him! With your gift, you help us support Houston Toads, a critically endangered species native to Texas. Click here to learn more about Houston Toads and how you can further the Houston Zoo’s conservation efforts that help ensure their survival. [www.houstonzoo.org/name-a-toad]
Come visit the newly-named toads on June 19 from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. as we celebrate a TOAD-ally Awesome Father’s Day at the Houston Zoo. This fun, family event will be filled with crafts, activities, Houston Toad info and much more! This event is FREE with your paid Zoo admission
Every industry has its own special lingo…. here is how I could tell you about my day in ‘our’ lingo…
While in CNMI, the MAC team, in conjunction with DFW and AZA TAGs, works to provide different species for captive breeding as well as translocation. On this trip our targets are GOWE and RUFA.
We opened the nets at 6:00 AM ChST. Throughout the day, every 15 minutes all the nets have to be checked and cleared of any non-target species. Each time we walked out into the woods our excitement grew at the thought of catching our targeted species. On the walks, we were also able to see active BRWE and RUFA nests.
We would take turns going on the different net routes: nets 9, & 1-4, nets 10 and 11, or nets 5-8. On the 3rd day of netting we added nets 12, 14, 15, & 16 to the mix to increase our trapping numbers. And if you counted you may have noticed that we skipped net 13 – we did this intentionally, not as a superstition (as one might suspect), but net 13 is for “nature’s call” as we were out in the forest with no facilities other than trees near-by.
During the several days we were mist-netting, we also caught (and released) BRWE, MIST, COLK, WTGD, and MIHO.
For each of the target species that we caught a very specific protocol was followed. Each person that was checking the nets had a special bag to hold and transport the bird back to base camp. At camp, we put the birds into specialized transport boxes (with food and water) and labeled each bird with the net number and the time of trapping. We used a GPS to mark all the netting sites, so we would be able to later include the exact trapping location in our data set. Once the birds were settled into the transport crates, we would transfer them back to the bird room for processing.
COLK caught in a mist net
Trapped birds waiting in their individual bags to go in the crates.
Placing birds in the transport crates.
A transport crate ready to go and full of birds!
There is not a list of 100’s of bird species that inhabit this area; in fact the bird list numbers around 104 – 110 species. One of the unique attributes of the CNMI is that each island has several endemic species (species that only occur on that island or those islands near-by). Many of the birds that call CNMI home are listed on the IUCN as NT, VU, EN or CR (not to mention on near-by Guam the Micronesian Kingfisher is EW). There are only a few forest bird species on the Island that we did not catch, namely MAFD and NIRW and one endemic species we did not see at all but heard… the MIME. While driving to and from our netting sites, we did see several birds that are common to this are including WHTE, BRNO, and REHE. While the possible list of species is not as long and diverse as the bird list for the Houston area, each sighting was a unique opportunity to see many bird species that not common, even in their native habitat.
CNMI Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
DFW Department of Fish and Wildlife (for CNMI)
ChST Chamorro Standard Time
MAC Mariana Avifauna Conservation
AZA Association of Zoos and Aquariums
TAG Taxon Advisory Group
IUCN International Union for Conservation of Nature
EW Extinct in the Wild
CR Critically Endangered
NT Near Threatened
AOU Banding Codes for Birds (with IUCN Red List Status)
GOWE Golden White-eye (CR)
RUFA Rufous Fantail
BRWE Bridled White-eye (EN)
WTGD White-throated Ground Dove (NT)
COLK Collared Kingfisher
MIST Micronesian Starling
MIHO Micronesian Honeyeater
MAFD Mariana Fruit Dove (EN)
NIRW Nightingale Reed Warbler (CR)
MIME Micronesian Megapode (EN)
WHTE White Tern
BRNO Brown Noddy
REHE Pacific Reed Heron
Tiny RUFA chicks in the nest, four days after we first spotted the nest, shown previously.
Want more information? Read the rest of the series by clicking HERE!
To continue our series on feathers, let’s take a look at how birds grow these marvels of bioengineering. One of the best ways to understand this process, is to examine feather growth stages in altricial chicks.
Altricial chicks are often featherless (some species have sparse natal down), blind, and completely helpless when they hatch. These chicks grow rapidly, thanks to an overwhelming food supply from the parents.
Once you get past the absolute alien appearance of these little guys, you may notice small white bumps on the skin of the bird, most prominent on the neck in this picture. These bumps are called papillae and they form during embryonic development, or to put it simply, while the chick is growing in the egg. These papillae eventually form follicles, and from these follicles, similar to human hair growth, feathers form.
You may be surprised, however, at how those feathers form. The picture below is the same kookaburra chick, covered in pin feathers.
The same Kookaburra Chick!
The bird, no longer looking like an alien insect, now resembles a character from a horror movie, or a member of a great punk band.
During this stage, the developing feather is nourished by blood vessels that extend into the feather shaft, giving the pin feathers a very dark coloration. These cells are alive and multiplying, but the cells eventually die as the feather grows, allowing them to harden and stand up to the pressures of the surrounding environment, and the blood supply is cut off once the feather is fully formed. These growing feathers are densely packed in to a feather sheath, and when the sheath begins to break open, the feathers unfurl from the packaging.
This eruption of feathers can be seen below, in a photograph of a Golden-headed Quetzal chick:
Golden-headed Quetzal chick, with feathers unfurling from the feather sheath.
To best illustrate feather growth in chicks, check out this amazing series of photographs of growing Red Lorikeets by fellow bird keeper, Matt Schmit:
Red Lorikeets on hatch day
One Week Old
Three Weeks Old
Four Weeks Old
Five Weeks Old
Eight Weeks Old
In all of these chicks, you can easily see that feathers are growing from some areas of the skin, while other areas remain bare. These areas, where the feathers emerge from the skin are called feather tracts, or pterylae. The bare areas of skin are called apteria.
The prominent feather tracts of two Purplish-backed Jay chicks
The reasoning for this arrangement of feathers is simple. It allows the birds to function with less feathers overall, somewhat like a ‘feather comb-over’, which drastically reduces the total weight of feathers, just another adaptation for flight.
Most birds have these large areas of featherless skin, but there are a few notable exceptions. Penguins and ratites are uniformly covered in feathers. As flightless birds, they do not need to maintain their svelte figures and can boast as many feathers as possible to cover and protect their bodies.
The arrangement of feather tracts and bare skin is collectively known as pterylosis, and amazingly enough, this differs from one group of birds to another! While we do not know the reasoning behind these differences, scientists can use feather tract patterns to determine how to classify and group birds.
By this point, you may be wondering where all those cute, fluffy baby birds are. Not all chicks hatch, “naked as a jaybird”. The adorable chicks below are covered in natal down.
Congo Peafowl Chick
Flamingo chicks have thick white natal down.
These natal down feathers are essential to the survival of some chicks, providing insulation and camouflage. While adult birds also have body downfeathers, grown from follicles devoted to solely to the production of these down feathers, natal down grows out of the same follicles that eventually produce ‘typical’ feathers. Often, these natal down feathers are actually on the tip of the typical feathers, and as those feathers grow, the soft fuzzy down drops away.
This can lead to a very awkward stage of development, during which a chick may be partially cute and fluffy, and partially pokey and pointy, such as the ibis chick below.
Waldrapp Ibis Chick with flight feathers growing from the wings.
As a general rule of thumb, all chicks are handled with extreme care, but during this feather growth period, it is especially important to have a gentle hand. It is quite evident that growing so many feathers at once is energy-consuming, uncomfortable, and really very itchy.
Now that we have covered how a bird grows these ‘typical’ feathers, our next step is learning about these contour feathers and their numerous functions.