Riley’s Declassified Baby Bird Survival Guide

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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 ability 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 on the Zoo’s website!

Despite the hay fever and constant cleaning, there is one thing I have always loved about springtime: baby birds! Each spring my family takes home two new baby chickens from the farmers market. For three months, these birds are entirely dependent on me for heat, food, and shelter. Raising chicks really is a full time job. However, the San Diego Zoo takes raising chicks to a whole new level. This week, the interns visited the Aviary Propagation Center (APC) where we met with Animal Care Manager, Nicole LaGrego and Senior Keeper Ann Knutson. Along with the rest of the APC team, these two women serve as surrogate mothers for birds who were rejected by their mothers. Sometimes, eggs are also hand raised so endangered species will lay more eggs and produce more offspring. As a chicken owner and frequent chick raiser myself, I can contest that raising birds can be a time consuming and frustrating task, however it is also a very rewarding job. After raising 2,341 eggs Ms. LaGrego, Ms. Knutson and the aviary propagation team have it down to an exact science. While there is a huge difference between raising chickens and raising exotic birds, they gave me many helpful tips to raising a flock of my own.

From the first day an egg is laid to the birds first few months, temperature and humidity are some of the most important factors in a bird’s environment. Eggs are kept in large incubators set at different temperatures depending on the birds species. Each day, keepers weigh eggs and turn them slightly. Turning the eggs prevents the developing bird from becoming stuck to the shell. Humidity affects how much weight an egg loses per day. Weight loss is a way to measure a chicks development. A healthy egg loses about 15% of its mass per week. If an egg is losing too much or too little weight, the humidity is adjusted accordingly. After the egg hatches, temperature plays a huge role in the chicks health. While some birds develop feathers inside the egg, most are hatched completely naked. Birds cannot regulate their own body temperature and rely on the environment for heat. For chickens, a heat lamp will provide sufficient warmth, but exotic birds have different requirements. Hatchlings are raised in another type of incubator that is kept at a carefully regulated temperature and humidity.

The next challenge of hand rearing birds is feeding. First, keepers must figure out what type of diet is best suited for the bird. Then, they must find a creative way to deliver the food. It is important that these birds do not imprint on the keepers. If a bird imprints on humans, it will not know how to act around other birds therefore cannot share an exhibit and sometimes cannot reproduce. To minimize the chance of imprinting, keepers will cover themselves with sheets and use hand puppets to feed the birds. However, some birds are used as ambassador animals. These animals are trained for educational purposes so keepers are instructed to handle these birds as much as possible. As for raising chickens and other domestic birds, the more handling and time spent with the birds the better. This will make them docile and used to human interaction.

Raising birds takes a lot of hard work and dedication. But, as Ms. Knutson said, “ The most rewarding part is to see each chick’s individual personality.” Believe it or not, birds can be just as charismatic and playful as a dog. My own chickens beg for food and follow me around the yard. Each one has a distinct temperament and personality of their own. The same is true of the birds raised at the Zoo. Next time you visit the Zoo, take a look at some of the birds and pay attention to their different habits. You might just love them so much, you’ll decide to raise domestic birds of your own!

Riley, Real World
Week Six, Fall 2015