Helping Chicks get their Wings at the APC

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!

When you think of the acronym APC, what comes to mind? Alligators Play with Crocodiles is one possibility. How about Another Purple Cat? Or my personal favorite: A Poignant Capybara.

All of my first guesses were wrong, but no worries, because APC keeper Jessica Theule was happy to tell the interns what APC really stands for. APC stands for Avian Propagation Center, an on-grounds San Diego Zoo building dedicated to the conservation of the Zoo’s extensive bird collection.

One of the most important jobs of the APC is incubating, hatching, and even hand-raising chicks born at the Zoo. If an egg is not receiving proper care from its parents, the APC can step in and help the chick develop. Every year, the APC hatches about 200 eggs. That’s almost four eggs a week!

Mrs. Theule gave us a tour of the APC, and it was instantly obvious how much time and effort the keepers put into taking care of the eggs. Inside the incubation room, about a dozen cream colored boxes lined the walls. The whiteboards on each of the incubators included notes about the oval-shaped treasures inside. Mrs. Theule explained to us that after many years of trial and error, the keepers have gained extensive knowledge on species-specific temperature and humidity requirements for setting the incubators. This vital information helps each species of bird get the best care possible in its first weeks- or months- of life.

In the hatchery, Mrs. Theule showed us the intensive care that goes into maintaining healthy eggs. Twice a week, Mrs. Theule and other keepers candle the eggs from the incubation room. Candling is basically holding a giant flashlight up to an egg. The bright light illuminates the contents of the egg, and the keepers are able to visually track the progress of the developing chick.

Did you know that an egg is supposed to lose weight as it develops? Knowing this important fact, APC keepers frequently track the weight of an egg and make sure it is healthy. By keeping extensive weight records, the keepers are dedicated to making sure that their chicks hatch- alive and kicking.

The keepers at the APC also put a great deal of time into making sure that the needy chicks develop properly into independent adults. Using an array of techniques, such as puppets, socks, feeding tubes, and syringes, the keepers ensure that the chicks receive proper nutrition- without becoming too dependent on the keepers in the process. They work hard  to make sure that the chicks do not imprint on the them, which happens when a chick establishes a keeper as its parent. One way the caretakers avoid imprinting is by wearing “the ghost,” a sheer cape-like garment, over their face and body. When a keeper is feeding a young bird, the ghost makes it difficult for the bird to determine what is underneath. This simple trick helps wean the chicks off of the keepers, so that one day, the birds can feed themselves and not rely on the keepers to- literally- spoon feed them every morsel that goes into their mouths.

Interns got a unique, hands-on experience when Mrs. Theule brought out eggs from the green- naped pheasant pigeon and the green aracari. The eggs, for reasons not entirely known, never hatched. Mrs. Theule first let us candle our individual egg to see if it had even been fertilized by a male. My egg, from the aracari, was fertilized but the chick never fully developed. Next, I broke open my egg and try to locate the embryo. Amidst the mix of neon-orange colored yolk and cream-colored egg membranes, I located the tiny embryo. The little guy (or gal) was about the size of a fingernail, and was light brown in color. I was even able to make out the eyes!

Although it is unfortunate that the egg didn’t make it, each unsuccessful egg can help scientists determine new ways to ensure more hatchings in the future. And more chicks are a good thing- the APC works hard to make sure every bird at the Zoo gets a chance to “break out of their shell.”

Rachel, Real World Team
Week Four, Winter Session 2012