One Bird at a Time

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Zoo InternQuest is a career exploration program for high school students.  For more information see the Zoo InternQuest blogs.  For more photos see the Zoo InternQuest Photo Journal.

On prior visits to the Zoo, I would often spend far less time observing the birds than the mammals.  Although I realized that birds have their importance in the food chain, they simply never held much appeal for me.  They weren’t as adorable as the pandas or as seemingly intelligent as the elephants.  However, our tour of a handful of the Zoo’s 325 species of birds helped me appreciate that they too have a story.

The breeding season for the majority of birds is from March to August, and during this time, the exhibits are a flurry of activity.  Keepers play a vital role in helping breeding run smoothly.  In the flamingo display, Keepers begin constructing short mounds of mud for each pair of flamingos on April 1st.  The birds then increase their mounds’ size and by May 1st lay their eggs, one per pair of parents.  A month later, the fluffy gray babies (no, they aren’t born pink- that happens later in life) begin to hatch. Throughout all this, Keepers carefully observe the population, occasionally taking certain eggs, such as those of special importance or with negligent parents, to be incubated separately in order to maintain a successful populace.

Other bird species require more attention, which is where the Zoo’s Aviation Propagation Center (AVP) comes in.  Since its establishment in 1983, the AVP has spent countless hours incubating, hatching, and hand-rearing nearly 300 different bird species.  The beautiful Micronesian kingfisher, with its rust orange head and chest and teal wings, is one of the AVP’s success stories.  These birds are endangered in captivity and extinct in the wild due to the brown tree snake, a reptile that was unintentionally introduced to Guam by humans.  The AVP helped increase the Micronesian kingfisher’s population in captivity, both at the San Diego Zoo and other zoos nationwide.  Humans are conserving species that we ourselves have pushed to the brink of extinction, and this preservation is a start.  Perhaps the next step will be to conserve before endangerment.

Breeding is an essential aspect of conservation.  A healthy species usually includes a great deal of genetic diversity, which is the very basis of evolution.  This diversity can save a species from extinction by helping them adapt to the challenges they face.  Many captive populations are of limited size and thus, have limited genetic diversity.  Such a small gene pool can result in inbreeding as well as an inability to adapt.  This is why zoos often ship and receive animals from different facilities during the breeding season: to augment the gene pool.  By carefully choosing two individuals with diverse yet compatible genes, not only is that species’ population enlarged, but its gene pool and health might also be enhanced.  Such an increase in genetic variation is crucial in the enduring success of any animal.  Breeding with attention to genetics is a significant step towards the conservation of a wide variety of species, perhaps not immediately, but certainly in the long-term.  The little steps of today can make a world of difference for tomorrow.

Taylor, Conservation Team