Your Visit is Helping a Rare Bird in Colombia

Press pause on life for a moment and journey with us to the wilds of Colombia. Upon arrival you meet with your travel partner and guide and embark on an 8 mile hike into the mountains where you will spend the night at a farmers house. You wake with the sun the next morning, listening to the call of howler monkeys as you climb out of your hammock and prepare yourself for a day of hiking. For the next two weeks, your days are full of trekking through the mountains, talking to locals, and setting up camera traps. What are you in search of? A rare and elusive bird – the blue-billed curassow.

This is the exact journey our assistant bird curator Chris Holmes has recently returned from. Chris has been directly involved in blue-billed conservation both in the US and Colombia since joining the Houston Zoo full-time in 2000. Unique to Colombia, there are only a few hundred blue-billed curassows left in the wild due to habitat destruction and hunting. Currently, the only known location of this bird is within a reserve in the southern portion of its range and little research has been done in the northern half, leaving a huge gap in the knowledge base about this species. Chris, who serves as the American Zoos and Aquariums regional program population manager for the species and Christian Olaciregui, the Colombian population manager for blue-billed curassows and head of biology and conservation at Barranquilla Zoo, hope to close this gap by exploring this area of Colombia that has been historically inaccessible. As fate would have it, Proyecto Tití, a Houston Zoo partner working with cotton-top tamarin monkeys just happens to be situated in the Montes de Maria region of Colombia – an area where the blue-billed curassow is believed to live but has been rarely seen. Knowing if these birds are in the area will help to strengthen conservation efforts for this critically-endangered bird species, and will inform next steps as plans for the future are discussed.

Chris’s time in Colombia was not just focused on seeking out blue-billed curassow tracks and setting up camera traps in an attempt to locate the birds – he and Christian also spent a great deal of time talking with local organizations and land owners as they are playing a huge role in leading conservation efforts in the study area. As Chris explains it: “On day two, we walked out of the forest along the riverbed to go back to the City of San Juan as there was a meeting of the Regional Protected Areas System which included, The Colombian Environmental Authority, Proyecto Titi, other regional NGOs, and local farmers to discuss the projects they are working on together.This meeting illustrated the massive amount of work and dedication that is going on in this region. There is a lot of work being put into connecting the National Park through-out this area via a system of corridors, to ensure that there are not any patches of forest that are isolated by cattle farming or agricultural activities. All of these groups have seen successes in having private land owners set aside plots of their private property to remain, or be developed into corridors to connect habitat.”

The fact that these efforts are already underway in the region is excellent, and will be particularly important should the camera traps provide evidence of blue-billed curassows in the area. Christian and the team in Colombia will continue to check the traps periodically to see what images are recovered, and we can’t wait to see what they find! While we await the results, make sure to drop by and check out the wattled curassow, an endangered relative of the blue-billed curassow, on your next trip to the zoo and come face-to-face with one of the many species you are helping to save in the wild!

 

 

Whooping Cranes Weather the Storm with the Help of You and the Zoo

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, we were reminded of the importance, and the sheer strength of community. For many months now, Texans all along the Gulf Coast region have been working to rebuild and re-establish a sense of safety and security – a place to once again call home. In the aftermath of any storm, it is not just the people that have to rebuild; and you may not know it, but through a portion of your admission fee to the Houston Zoo, you have been lending a helping hand to a very special community of Texans – the whooping cranes.

Weighing around 15 pounds, the whooping crane has a wingspan of more than 7 feet and is as tall as many humans, reaching a height of around 5 feet, making it the tallest bird in North America! Whooping cranes are best known for their courtship dance, finding mating partners through an elaborate display of kicking, head-pumping, and wing-sweeping. Adult whooping cranes can be spotted fairly easily thanks to their bright white feathers and accents of crimson red on the top of their head. The only remaining self-sustaining population of whooping cranes is the naturally occurring flock that breeds in Canada and winters right here in Texas!

If you were able to attend Nature Connects – Art with LEGO Bricks at the Houston Zoo this past summer, you may recall seeing a striking figure of this beautiful bird. At its feet were a cluster of tiny white dots – a visual representation of the number of whooping cranes that remain in the wild here in the US. One of the rarest birds in North America with an estimated population of 612 world-wide, the whooping crane saw its numbers drop to just 15 in the early 1940s, but with the help of land protection and public education, their numbers have continued to steadily increase. But what happens when natural disaster strikes?

When the cranes arrived in Texas this past fall after their 2,400 mile journey from their nesting grounds in Canada, they returned to vegetative damage from the storm surge, and increased salt content in the inland freshwater ponds that the birds rely on for drinking. Our partners at the International Crane Foundation (ICF) went to work immediately, replacing damaged ground water pumps to replenish the freshwater these birds need to survive. Notified of the situation, the Houston Zoo donated to ICF’s Hurricane Harvey rebuild in Rockport campaign.  The Houston Zoo also teamed up with the International Crane Foundation’s Texas office and established a Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator position that will be funded by the Zoo. Filling this role is Corinna Holfus of Houston, Texas, who will work with partners like the Houston Zoo, groups, and individuals to develop awareness and caring for whooping cranes and foster their commitment to safeguard whooping cranes in their areas. Holfus will form partnerships that include involving hunters, landowners and other members of the community in monitoring and keeping watch over the whooping cranes in their areas.

With the establishment of this position, the International Crane Foundation’s North American Program Director stated “The uniqueness of having the world’s only naturally producing flock of whooping cranes choosing to winter on the Texas coast is something to cherish, take pride in and celebrate. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the Houston Zoo allowing the hiring of Holfus we’ll now be able to greatly accelerate and expand our efforts to increase the appreciation, awareness, and protection of this still fragile, slowly expanding flock.” It would seem as though birds of feather truly do flock together, and thanks to the continued support of Zoo goers like you, this native species has an even better chance for a bright future.

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part 4

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

When the bird room is full of Rufous fantails and Mariana fruit doves the veterinarians do a medical exam on every single bird. We had two vets, one vet tech, and four bird keepers helping with the exams. It was great having this many people on hand to complete this enormous task as efficiently as possible.

During this process a small amount of blood is taken from the underside of the wing with a capillary tube, just like when a person is checking their blood sugar levels. The blood is put onto a slide; this is called a blood smear. The slides are looked at under a microscope to see if the blood cells are normal and to make sure the white blood cell count is normal. If the white blood count is high that could mean the bird is fighting an infection.

Medical exam performed on a bird as it prepares to be translocated for conservation purposes
Blood from each bird is looked at carefully to ensure the blood cells are normal and the bird is healthy

After the blood is collected the bird is given a physical. The vet checks the body condition, sound of its heart and breathing, and checks its eyes to make sure it has no issues with vision. If the bird seems less than the pinnacle of health, the bird is released and not translocated. We want to make sure every bird has the best chance of surviving in its new home.

Each bird is looked at carefully by wildlife professionals

The last thing done during the exam is a feather collection. The feathers are collected so that the gender of the bird can be determined. This is not determined while we are there, but it takes about a week or two for an outside lab to do the work. This information is recorded for future data analysis.

All these things are noted for each individual bird’s records. Note cards are kept with the birds while they are in our care and we write down everything that happens. The birds’ weight, where it was found, diet consumption, bands (identification), and medical notes are all written on these cards.

Records are kept for each individual bird

Next time the birds will be prepped for departure and we will watch them sail away towards their new home!

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part III

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

The bird room for native birds who are being relocated to islands without the invasive brown tree snake

When the birds come in from the field, it’s time for some important record-keeping. The birds are banded, weighed, and their wings, legs, and tails are measured. They are also given a physical to make sure they are in good body condition. We check for signs of nesting as well (such as a bare spot on their belly). Each bird gets a metal band with a unique number engraved on it. This helps us to identify each bird and more easily keep track of them as we feed and monitor their condition.  Below are several photos of the process for both the fruit dove and the rufous fantail that we met in the previous blog entry.

Measuring the tarsometatarsus length
Measuring primary feathers
Measuring tail feathers
Checking feather quality
Measuring tarsometatarsus length
Banding the birds-putting small tags on the birds for identification purposes

After they receive their physical they are placed in their own individual box. The dove boxes are larger than the boxes for the fantails because they are much larger birds. They will then travel to Guguan (another island in the Mariana region). This travel time also gives us a chance to collect feather, blood, and fecal samples in order to determine sex and the stress level of every bird. Disney Animal Kingdom sends a team from their veterinary clinic to collect these samples for a study they are doing on cortisol (stress hormone) levels. I will go more in depth on the process of the medical exams next time.

Dove boxes
Fantail boxes

Every day the fruit doves are fed a mixture of papaya, Kaytee exact high fat formula, and water. This is done three times a day. The rufous fantails get fed meal worms and flies four times a day. The idea is to have them eat consistently to ensure they are as healthy as possible throughout their journey.

Next time we will see our rufous fantail friend get a medical exam.

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Today, we are working with BBVA Compass Stadium to plant a new pollinator garden at the stadium! This beautiful new pollinator garden supports local pollinators like bees, butterflies, and more, and is located at the North entrance to BBVA Compass Stadium. Great partnership for an even greater good. ... See MoreSee Less

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