**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.
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.
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.
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.