Attwater's Prairie Chickens

At the Houston Zoo, we collect the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken eggs from our captive flock of birds for artificial incubation and hand rearing of the chicks.  This allows us to better protect the eggs from damage and increases the chances of an egg hatching successfully.

When our APC hens lay eggs they are collected right away and handled very carefully.  We wear gloves to protect the eggs from the oils on our hands.  They are transported to our Incubation Room in a modified cooler that contains foam lining for protection.  All of the eggs are carefully measured and weighed, and all of the data is recorded.  The eggs then go into an artificial incubator that is temperature and humidity controlled.  Each egg is “candled” and weighed twice a week.  We candle an egg by shining a light on one end of the egg.  This lets us see how the embryo is growing and we can determine if it looks healthy.

After 24 days of incubation, the chicks are getting ready to hatch.  They poke their way into the air cell and take their first few breaths.  At this stage, we move the eggs into the hatcher.  On the 25th day, the chicks typically break through the outer shell. The chicks hatch after 26 days of incubation.  They are covered in bright yellow feathers with patches of brown and black.

In the video, the eggs are at day 25 of incubation and have already broken the outer shell a little bit.  You can see how they “cap” the top of the shell by breaking it in a circle.  Once they have finished, they push themselves out.  This takes a lot of energy and they rest for a while.  Once they are rested, they start moving around quite a bit.  Please keep in mind that this is a time lapse video, so it looks like the chicks are moving very fast and crashing into each other; however they are not as energized as they appear and they are not hurting each other.

Swimming Lessons!

Living in one of the warmest and most humid environments in the country, I think we can all agree that there are few things more exciting than the chance to lounge about in the pool. The refreshing fun and social bonding experience is not only fun for people – many of our animals enjoy the same treatment!

Tupelo (left) and Baylor (right), playing in their kiddie pool


Here we have Tupelo and Baylor, Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) calves housed here at the Houston Zoo. As you can clearly see, both of these young elephants are enjoying a soak in an inflatable kiddie pool. This gives keepers the opportunity to monitor their progress swimming before they get the opportunity to tackle a much larger, deeper pool.

The two calves have since graduated from kiddie pools, and can regularly be found enjoying the 80,000 gallon pool in the new elephant yard (the newest addition to the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat). However, this picture is absolutely too cute not to share and is sure to help cool anyone off on a warm day.

Want to see more of our elephants? The Houston Zoo has a webcam in the new elephant yard, broadcasting 24/7. Our herd of elephants spends most of the time in this yard (though they do come out of the yard for their morning bath, in case of inclement weather and just so keepers can clean up!). The elephant webcam can be checked here.

New at the Zoo: Giant Elephant Shrews

The next time you are in the Natural Encounters building, look closely near the ground in the Rainforest exhibit. The two little mammalian vacuum cleaners you’ll see there are recent additions to the Zoo, our Giant Elephant Shrews. “Phoenix” and “Karma” are young brothers, arriving from the Denver Zoo where they were born last year.

Shrews use their remarkably long noses to dig into the mulch and gravel to nab mealworms, crickets, and other parts of their diet. In the wild they forage for a wider range of insects and other invertebrates, so to round out their nutrition our commissary also prepares for them a custom blend of earthworms, cat food, peanut oil, protein powder, and vitamin C.

Though Phoenix and Karma are small, they are full grown adults. There are more than a dozen species of shrews that range in size from tiny pygmy shrews to these “giants.” They are found in parts of East Africa, including coastal forests of Kenya  and Tanzania, though due to their natural ability to hide in the undergrowth and tendency to live far from human habitation, they are very rarely seen in the wild. Their habitat is under threat as well, mostly due to agriculture and logging.

This video shows Phoenix nosing around the lower gravel area and munching mealworms in the Rainforest exhibit; Karma was feeling particularly shy that day and stayed well hidden in the upper mulched area. (We made sure he received plenty of mealworms as well that afternoon.)

Wish Phoenix and Karma a happy birthday when you see them!  They were born on May 27, 2011.


Guest Blogger Carolyn Jess Discusses How You Can Help

Carolyn Jess is an 11 year old student who has agreed to be our special guest blogger about wildlife conservation. We first met Carolyn in October 2011 when she came out to the Zoo to meet our special guest Jack Hannah, who was visiting the Zoo to speak at our Conservation Gala. If you would like to contact Carolyn or have comments, you may send them to


There are many interesting blogs on the Houston Zoo website.  Some blogs tell you about endangered species and others (like the ocelot and Texas Blind Salamander) tell you what you can do to help.  There are a few things YOU can do to help protect our species.


What can you do to help our animals in trouble?  Well, you are already at the first step – reading and learning about them.  YOU now can teach others about the endangered ocelot or the horned toad.  YOU can tell your friends about these animals.  YOU can tell them to visit the zoo or a State Park.  YOU can choose an animal that is threatened or endangered and raise money for the scientists who research this animal. Ask your parents or teachers to help you!  Here are some ideas you could use:

  • Have a lemonade stand (you could give the money to the SPCA)
  • Ask for money for endangered species research instead of presents for your birthday or Christmas
  • Have a garage sale and use that money for wildlife conservation programs in your area
  • Start a recycling club at your school – I did – I asked a teacher if she would sponsor it.
  • Conserve water
  • Recycle everything you can
  • Use the money from your aluminum recycling to pay for a visit to the zoo – your admission price helps the animals!


This is how we can protect what we care about most – OUR ANIMALS!  Conservation is the most important thing you can do!  If you have other ideas, share them on my blog.  Let’s help our endangered animals – if we don’t, who else will?

Enrichment for a Fierce Hunter

The Houston Zoo is home to one of the widest varieties of animal species that can be found in the country. Peaceful grazers and fierce hunters can be found side-by-side, and it is the responsibility of animal keepers to provide appropriate enrichment for these animals.


Swift Fox
Our Swift Fox

Here we have one of our (not so) fierce hunters… a swift fox (Vulpes velox)! While these small canids have a varied diet, small animals such as crickets and grubs are certainly favored food items. To increase the difficulty of obtaining the prey, these items can be placed in cardboard boxes or mixed among shredded paper to give our animals the opportunity to hunt their food. This gives the animals the chance to exercise both their minds and bodies, and the ability to act on their natural instincts.

Items such as boxes and paper are just a few of the items utilized by animal keepers here at the Houston Zoo to better the lives of our animals. Interested in helping out? Our enrichment team has a list of items regularly in demand, which can be found here. Come see our Swift Fox in the McGovern Children’s Zoo!

Meet the Staff – Phyllis Pietrucha-Mays

When you visit the Zoo, it is very easy to identify a member of our staff. The Houston Zoo employees (and volunteers!) make ourselves as visible as possible so that guests can recognize us. This allows us to be accessible to our wonderful guests, and provide the best experience possible.

What you may not know is that behind the scenes, we have many employees and volunteers who work extremely hard to keep the Zoo operating at a high level. Recently, I was lucky enough to spend some time with Phyllis, who is the Commissary Supervisor here at the Houston Zoo.

Phyllis, we know your job title, but what do you actually DO?

I supervise the daily activities of the Zoo commissary. That involves overseeing ordering, storage, and preparation of animal feed and nutritional supplies.

There are a lot of animals here! How long does it take to prepare all that food?

Starting at 5 am, the first four hours are the busiest in the kitchen. We are working mostly with assorted fruits and vegetables, making our diets to the order of our specialized cookbooks.

How many other people help with all this work?

We have six total animal keepers, three of which are senior keepers. Each one works four days in the kitchen, and one day on the dock delivering animal food. The kitchen has three stations which are rotated on a daily basis so we all become familiarized with the ever changing diets. We have three different “cookbooks” that we follow. These change on a daily basis due to new acquisitions of animals, special health concerns, and animal pregnancies.

What is the most difficult part of all of this?

The most difficult part is probably juggling the constant changes. There is a lot of maintenance work to make sure the food is prepared correctly. After the food is prepared and ready, we also must schedule and deliver the right food to the right place at the right time.

What do you enjoy the most about your job?

I love the early hours. We work from 5:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. 365 days a year. Yep, 365. Even though the Zoo is closed on Christmas day, all of the animals need to be fed. Although I don’t get to participate in this much anymore, I used to love delivering food to all the animal sections. The experience of hearing the birds, elephants, lions, and other animals begin to wake up is just so exciting!

With every animal in the Zoo, it just seems like so much food! Do you have any fun facts?

I would bet most people don’t know that our three rhinos eat an average of 400 bales of hay a year. Due to last year’s drought, hay alone became quite an expense. The cost for only our rhinos last year was approximately $5,000.

What else can you tell me about the incredibly important work you do?

We have the same food safety as you would find in a restaurant. We also share the same worries about temperature, sanitation, keeping meat separate from veggies, etc. However, unlike restaurant preparation, we work with a wide variety of foods including live insects(crickets, meal worms) rodents, assorted types of fish, produce, grain, and hays. Our Zoo commissary is state of the art and amazing to see in action!

A big THANKS to Phyllis for letting me interview her. Stay tuned for more interviews with our great staff!

(Live Blog) Sea Turtle Release

Hello! We’ll be live blogging the release of a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle this morning, with the festivities kicking off around 8:00 am. This sea turtle was severely injured by a boat prop. After almost a year of recovery at NOAA’s sea turtle barn in Galveston and receiving constant veterinary care from Houston Zoo’s, Dr. Joe Flanagan, a 20-year-old sea turtle is ready to be released to the ocean once again. She will be driven to a Galveston beach and allowed to walk down the beach to catch the first wave out to the Gulf. Stay tuned for up to the minute details and pictures of this event.


**This page will refresh itself**



Monkeys Go Wild (Haired) for Conservation!

By Natural Encounters keepers Corri Osborne and Rachel Godambe


For guests visiting the Indoor Rainforest exhibit in the Carruth Natural Encounters building, a little monkey awaits with a big surprise!

Normally, visitors are quick to comment on the flashy appearance of the bright orange Golden Lion Tamarins seen in the Indoor and Outdoor Rainforest exhibits. Right now, however, all eyes are on the Cotton Top Tamarins.  These monkeys are known for their shock of white head hair and their brown and white coloring.  That all changed for our two monkeys in preparation for our celebration of Proyecto Titi, one of the conservation organizations that is featured in the recently released book Wildlife Heroes.


Natural Encounters zookeeper Rachel Godambe worked with the pair to dye their hair bright blue in support of the wild Cotton Top Tamarins of Colombia, who are studied by Proyecto Titi scientists and are fitted with radio trackers and dyed in color patterns to make identifying individual monkeys at great distances a slightly easier process.  This weekend, keeper chats at the Indoor Rainforest will highlight the conservation work done by Proyecto Titi to save these tiny endangered monkeys.  Guests will be able to spot our brightly colored monkeys and learn more about what native Colombians are doing to celebrate Cotton Tops and protect them and their rainforest habitat.



On Sunday, author Jeff Flocken will be at the Houston Zoo to sign copies of his book Wildlife Heroes, available for purchase at the zoo, and to share his wonderful stories about Cotton Top Tamarins and Proyecto Titi.  Please stop by on either Saturday or Sunday to see our information display and learn more!


Check out Rachel’s answers to some monkey related questions below:


Fun Facts about our Cotton Top Tamarins:


  • Cotton Top Tamarins vocalize to each other with a variety of high pitched squeaks that sound a lot like bird calls.
  • Cotton Top Tamarins tails are long but they are not prehensile. They use their tails for balance as they run and leap through branches.
  • Cotton Top Tamarins are social animals and live in groups of 2 to 12 individuals in the wild.


How long have you been a CTT trainer?

I have been training Mikey and Minnie the Cotton Top Tamarins at Natural Encounters for 8 months now.


Is this the strangest behavior you’ve trained the monkeys?

If you told me I will end up dying monkeys’ hair I wouldn’t believe it in a million years!


What makes working with Cotton Top Tamarins so rewarding?

These guys have interesting personalities which makes training them so fun and rewarding.


You had great success in dying the CTT hair bright blue.  What was the process?  What was your biggest challenge?  How long from start to finish did this take? 

It took a month to accomplish this goal of dying their hair blue for the conservation event. I had in mind applying the dye with a syringe. They are used to the presence of the syringe for oral medication and associate it with treats, so they were quite comfortable with this process. I used the syringe with water and had them touch a target, which is one of their long established training behaviors. The syringe was presented above their heads and a reward was given. I did this for a few days and once they were accustomed to it I dripped some water on them from the syringe and rewarded them with a big jackpot (lots of verbal goods, wax worms, currents, and yogurt tossed at them) and they did not mind at all. We did these sessions a couple of times a week up to a few days before the event. It was now time to introduce the dye (nontoxic food coloring) and this is where I was faced with a challenge, the dye would not apply properly to the hair. It was suggested that we use a small paint brush. These guys have never seen a paintbrush in their lives and to have it rubbed on their heads could be very scary for them. After practice sessions of presenting the paintbrush with the dye on it and moving it around them with lots of treats it became a positive item to them. Eventually, they let me apply the dye with a paintbrush on their crazy white hair. Now you can see them rock their blue hair in the Natural Encounters Rainforest for conservation!


The biggest challenge was Mikey would only let me do a few strands at a time because he would run to the window and stare at his reflection. We had to wait for him to stop looking at himself, then he would come back and let us do some more. It was a time consuming process, but I think he just wanted to make sure it looked good. = )

Wildlife Heroes Profiles: Painted Dog Conservation

Join us on May 19th and 20th for wildlife Heroes weekend.  On May 20th we welcome Jeff Flocken, co-author of Wildlife Heroes: 40 Leading Conservationists and the Animals they are Committed to Saving for a book-signing and presentations by zoo staff on the focus species of the book. Wildlife Heroes will be available for sale at the zoo on May 20th, quantities are limited!  Books are also available for  pre-order on the Houston Zoo website at: a dicounted price until May 17th.

To give you an idea of the projects covered in the book, we thought we would highlight a few of the projects the Houston Zoo supports throughout the week:

Dr. Greg Rasmussen: Painted Dog Conservation

Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) was originally established as Painted Dog Research in 1992 by Dr. Gregory Rasmussen. During the first two years the human-induced incidents from snares, shootings and road kills accounted for 95% of all Painted dog (aka African wild dog) mortalities. Early public presentations showed prejudice and ignorance and it was clear that unless this situation was addressed, the species could become extinct. The initial emphasis was to identify the critical issues and develop a strategy that would make a substantial, lasting contribution to Painted Dogs, nature conservation and, very importantly, to the lives of the local people.

Today, PDC employs over 60 people from the local communities to run programs that ensure the survival of the Painted dogs and improvement the livelihoods of the local people.

PDC is a leading model for community-based predator conservation. By combining the most advanced modern technology with traditional knowledge of local communities, PDC has experienced great success – Zimbabwe’s wild dog population has increased from 400 to 700 individuals since the project’s inception. PDC’s model also brings direct benefit to local people with increased employment and unparalleled education opportunities.

Painted Dog in rehabilitation facility just before release back into the wild

Residents of PDC’s neighboring communities not only benefit from its programs but also actively contribute to them.  For example, community members are employed in anti-poaching units and produce beautiful and unique art from the confiscated snare wire.  They assist in systematic monitoring of the painted dog population and teach environmental educational.  The active engagement of local residents empowers communities, strengthens conservation, and raises environmental awareness. 

When you come to the Houston Zoo on May 19th and 20th for our Wildlife Heroes weekend visit the Painted dog exibit area, and try your hand at building your own snare wire sculptures.  Wire sculpture building will take place at 10am until 12 pm on both days .  Hope to see you there!

You can meet Dr. Greg Rasmussen at the 2012 Wildlife Conservation Expo on October 13th in San Francisco, CA


Problem Solving with Apes

Chimpanzees and orangutans, two great ape species, can be found at the Houston Zoo. These amazing animals are incredibly intelligent. In the wild, this intelligence is constantly being put to the test as they encounter novel situations on a daily basis. To deal with these novel situations as well as completing everyday tasks, apes have developed keen problem solving skills. They use tools such as branches or rocks to help them obtain difficult food items such as nuts or termites. They build complicated nests out of branches and leaves each night high up in the trees to help keep them safe as they sleep. They use leaves to shelter them from rain or to collect water to drink.

Indah painting on iPad

Great apes that live in zoos such as the orangutans and chimpanzees have a team of dedicated keepers that ensure that their basic necessities such as food, water, and safe shelter are met on a daily basis. However, a zoo keeper’s job also involves ensuring that the animal has the highest quality of life possible. So not only are keepers interested in meeting the animal’s basic needs but also in making sure that the animals are constantly being engaged and stimulated by their environment. This is an especially important challenge when working with great apes due to their intelligence. The devices and activities that keepers use to accomplish this goal are referred to as enrichment as they enrich the lives of the animals.

Apes can quickly figure out many enrichment devices and keepers constantly are faced with the problem of trying to come up with new ideas to capture their interest. The Houston Zoo primate department’s newest solution to this problem is ……. the iPad!

Sally creating a masterpiece with a musical app.


Now many of you may wonder, what do the orangutans and chimpanzees do with an iPad? The answer is … they play with apps, of course! The iPad screen is the perfect fit for orangutan and chimpanzee fingers. Its small size makes it very easy to move so keepers can introduce it to the chimpanzees in the training room, to the orangutans at the viewing window or at any of the many rooms found in the animals’ holding area. The quantity and variety of apps available make it easy to keep the device novel and interesting for both the orangutans and the chimpanzees. Stay posted for more updates on this new fun enrichment project with our orangutans and chimpanzees!



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