Chirping for Conservation

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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, then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

Nicole LaGreco and Ann Knutsons’ entire job revolves around picking up chicks. No, no, not like that – chicks – as in baby birds. Ms. LaGreco and Ms. Knutson work at the Avian Propagation Center (APC) at the San Diego Zoo. Ms. LaGreco is an animal care manager, Ms. Knutson, a senior keeper, but what is the APC? It’s a facility where baby birds whose parents couldn’t care for them are given a second shot at being raised. The APC, like all other divisions of San Diego Zoo Global, is contributing to the conservation of endangered species around the world.

Many of the APC’s conservation efforts are fairly direct; they make a difference on an individual scale. When keepers raise hundreds of individuals, the effects of their work grow quickly. Every baby bird they are able to save is a boost to its species’ population, especially when that bird grows up to have babies of its own. The Guam kingfisher, bird species that has been declared extinct in the wild, is an excellent example. Guam kingfishers have been hunted to extinction on their native island by invasive brown tree snakes. There are now only 150 Guam kingfishers left, and only in zoos. The APC raises all of the San Diego Zoo’s Guam kingfishers with minimal human imprinting so that they are potential candidates for release into the wild once the tree snakes have been removed. While the kingfisher is by far the APC’s most extreme case, they also work with other endangered species, like the Andean cock of the rock, the blue crowned laughing crush, and the Dalmatian pelican. And even if a species is not endangered, keeping babies alive and creating a thriving population serves as a preventative measure.

Another way the team at APC helps conserve bird species is by raising animal ambassadors. The flamingoes that guests meet at Backstage Pass and many of the birds who star in educational shows around the Zoo and Safari park grew up with the APC staff. These birds go on to inspire the public and promote awareness for conservation in hundreds of guests every day.

On a more global scale, the APC team works on international projects to help endangered species around the world. For the past few years the Zoo has been sending APC staff to the Galapagos Islands to help raise mangrove finches. This finches’ populations have been declining, mainly because of a fly introduced to the island that kills their chicks with astonishing efficiency. The fly has a 97% mortality rate in mangrove finch chicks, but surprisingly, it has no effect on adult birds. Since adults are not susceptible to death by fly bites, APC keepers can help. By pulling eggs from nests and raising the chicks away from the flies, they are able to keep the chicks alive until the fly is no longer a threat to them. The adult finches are then released back into the wild on their native island, so the population can start to grow again.

The APC’s work is a very hands-on type of conservation. They help each bird they work with to grow up and live a successful, independent life. From the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park to an island thousands of miles away, the dedicated team at the Avian Propagation Center is making a difference for baby birds – and it all starts by picking them up.

Naomi, Conservation Team
Week Six, Fall 2015