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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus)

Hyacinth Macaw
Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus (Latham, 1790)

Range: Central South America
Habitat: Palm Savannah
Diet: Palm Nuts, Fruit
Social Grouping: Flocks of up to 30
Reproduction: Nest from July through December in tree cavities or on cliff faces. 2 eggs per clutch, but usually 1 survives to maturity.  Eggs incubated by female for 25-28 days while male tends to her.  Chicks fledge at 3 months, but dependent on parents until 6 months old.  Mature at about 7 years old
Lifespan: 40-50 Years (Estimate)
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix II



  • The world's largest parrot, up to 100 centimeters in length (half of this length is made up of tail feathers).  Wingspan 117-127 centimeters, weight 1.2-1.7 kilograms
  • Sexes look alike with cobalt blue feathers, bare yellow skin around the eye, and a yellow patch of skin next to the lower bill; the bill is black
  • Travel long distances daily in search of food, keep in touch with loud squawks and screams, return of roosts at sunset
  • Feed on clay off of cliff faces, possibly to neutralize toxins found in their diet
  • Known to feed on nuts that have passed through digestive tracts of cattle
  • Adults have few predators; eggs may be taken by crows, jays, toucans, and coati
  • Use of tools has been observed in wild and captive birds, such as using leaves to help maintain a grip on slippery nuts
  • Major threat has been illegal collection of birds for the pet trade; also threatened by habitat loss for cattle ranching or damming 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Life in the Slow Lane

There's a story that I've heard - heard it from a few different people, each saying it happened to them, which makes it more like a phenomenon, I guess.  Several folks over the years - co-workers, casual acquaintances, zoo visitors - have told me stories about the pet turtle they had as a kid.  They all took their turtle outside to play on a nice day (good for them, getting some Vitamin D for the shells) and set it in the grass.  Then they turned their back ("But just for a second!").

When they turned around, ol' Shelly (either that or one of the ninja turtle names) was gone. It just never occurred to them that their pet turtle might, you know, move.

One of the funniest sights of zookeeping is watching a hungry, hormonal, or otherwise motivated turtle or tortoise haul shell.  Sure, they won't win any races at the zoo, and they can't maintain it for very long, but they can really surprise you when they get moving.  Couple that with the fact that you probably weren't expecting to have to chase a tortoise, and you can easily see how someone's pet turtle might run away if left unattended.  Especially if it's a warm summer day and there are lots of yummy things to eat.

Still, as many times as I've heard this story, or some variation of it, I still hear endless jokes about how slow turtles are, with many people seeming to believe it.  Sloths are like that too.  I was cleaning our sloth exhibit once and heard a mother tell her children that it would take about one year for our sloths to go from one end of their (comfortably sized) exhibit to the other. I've seen them do it in under a minute.  When they are motivated, of course.  Which they seldom are...

Visitors love to embellish about our animals.  Sometimes, that can lead to disappointments, with animals unable to match the stories.  No, chameleons can't instantly change color to match anything - if you put them on a chess board, they won't immediately turn into black and red squares.  No, cheetahs can't run 150 miles an hour, they top out at 70.  No, black mamba venom won't kill you in two seconds.  I met a guy in college - my roommate, actually - who was disappointed to learn that giraffes were "only" 16 feet tall... he thought they were 50 or so.

There's no reason to exaggerate the strengths (or deficits, I've heard some remarkable beliefs concerning ostrich stupidity) of animals.  The truth is amazing enough.  Especially when it defies our beliefs.

Monday, May 23, 2016

World Turtle Day

World Turtle Day®




Ah yes, another "[Animal Name] Day."  "World Turtle Day", however, has a little more lasting power than many others - 2016 marks its 16th year.  Established by the American Tortoise Rescue in 1990, World Turtle Day celebrates shelled reptiles - animals that, for many of us, were first pets, or backyard acquantances.  For many zookeepers and aquarists, turtles and tortoises are part of our workplace families, and they are endearingly fascinating creatures.

Even visitors who fear other reptiles - snakes and lizards and crocodilians (to the best of my knowledge, no one is afraid of tuataras) find turtles and tortoises to be charming, even lovable.  We celebrate them in culture, from Franklin the Turtle to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Perhaps their slow, steady movements make them seem less threatening than many other animals.  With the notable (and dubious) exception of the Greek playwright Aeschylus, I know of no one who has ever been killed by a chelonian



If tortoises and turtles do no harm to people, we certainly do a lot to them.  They have been persecuted for centuries for food, oil, or ornamentation.  Many islands across the equatorial seas once boasted of giant tortoises - today, very few remain in greatly reduced numbers.  Traditional Chinese Medicine has made the individuals of some species more valuable than gold.  Sea turtles have their nesting beaches disturbed or paved over to make tourist resorts.  Even the more common species suffer as thousands of them are sold to inexperienced pet owners, only to languish in dirty fishbowls before dying stoically.

As a zookeeper, turtles and tortoises have been part of my life for years.  I've worked with hulking Aldabra tortoises, who could move with surprising speed as they saw you come with their favorite treats, and mata-matas which would lie motionless for hours before exploding with motion and sound as they sucked up an offered fish.  I've helped head-start baby sea turtles, hatch out endangered tortoises, and rehabilitate rescued pets, including on poor turtle with a shell so soft from light deficiency that you could actually bend it.  Before the zoos, there were the turtles found in my backyard or in the nearby woods.  Among their numbers were a select few that spent some time living in my terrariums before being released outside.

So for at least one day of the year, let's slow down and remember the turtles and tortoises.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

From the News: Zoo lions killed after suicidal naked man jumps in enclosure


Ridiculous.  Stupid.  Tragic.  Unfortunately, zoo exhibits tend to be built to keep animals in, but it's extremely difficult to build them in such a way as to keep humans out.  Not that this is the first time something like this has happened, nor will it likely be the last.  It's upsetting that anyone ever feels like their life has gotten to the point where this seems like a good option.  It's also upsetting that the lions had to pay for it.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Calf Who Came In From the Cold

Every month it seems there is some animal story - somewhere - that goes viral and the entire net focuses on.  Usually, it's not a happy story.  Cecil the Lion was one such case.  Marius the Giraffe from Copenhagen was another.  Now, it seems, we have the Yellowstone Bison calf.

TL;DR version - some tourists in Yellowstone saw a bison calf and thought it looked cold.  So, they caught it and put it in their car and drove off with it.  Rangers tried to reintroduce the calf back to a herd unsuccessfully, with the end result that the little fella was euthanized.

Now. never mind that the animal in question was an American bison, a species that ranges up into Alaska and is one cold-hardy beast.  Never mind the safety risks of trying to collect a calf from its mother.  And never mind what kind of mess a frightened bison calf is going to make in your car.  I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that anyone thought this was a good idea.

The thing is, though, stuff like this happens all the time.  Our zoo has an entire pen filled with white-tailed deer that some well-meaning person found as fawns, assumed were abandoned, and then decided to take home and keep as pets.  Just last week, I had someone bring a Canada goose to our zoo asking us to take care of him.  I carried him twenty feet out the gate and tossed him in the creek with all of the others.  So far, he seems to be doing fine (as in, the other geese have already taught him how to be an asshole).

Wild animals will largely be okay, with or without our intervention.  And if they aren't okay, that's fine too.  That bison calf, had he actually died of cold, would have provided food for some of Yellowstone's scavengers, such as wolves, coyotes, ravens, or grizzly bears.  There are times when intervention is necessary; I'm especially in favor of it if the animal is in a human-caused predicament, or if the species in question is a particularly rare or threatened one.  Some people I know have a very hands-off approach, others are very quick to jump in.

In any case, the jumping in (or not) should be done by trained professionals, who can determine what, if any, assistance an animal needs, and can make the proper decision about how it should be handled.  Rehab it?  Let it go as is?  Euthanize?  Send it to a zoo or aquarium?  Whenever possible, however, our position should be live and let live... or, in some cases, live and let die.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

ZooBorns (Or, "Awww... Look at the BAY-BEE...")

Two or three times a month, I try to post a "From the News" update from the world of zoos and aquariums. It's a world that is constantly changing and developing, and there's always something of interest to share.  Sometimes I pluck a news item off of my Facebook feed.  Usually I just go to Google New.  I can always find something, but 95% of the search results are always birth and death announcements of various zoo animals.

I typically don't share too many birth stories, unless there's a compelling reason why that birth is special; it might be the first time that species has ever bred in captivity, for instance, or the birth might have been the result of some fancy reproductive technology.  If I reported every relatively "common" birth (not that there is ever a "common" birth among zoo animals, no matter how many baby giraffes I've seen), that would pretty much be all that this blog consists of.

Fortunately, someone has already made such a site.  It's called ZooBorns.

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Photo Credit: Akron Zoo

ZooBorns celebrates the births of zoo animals around the world in accredited zoos (such as AZA as it's international counterparts - ARAZPA, EAZA, etc).  It's a huge hit with the public, easily followed on Facebook, and various hard-copy books of its photographs have been published.  Plus, the wonderful thing about documenting cute baby zoo animals is that there are always more in the works.

There was a time when I actually felt a little leery about ZooBorns.  I worried that focusing too much on cute babies detracted from serious conservation messages.  I worried that it made zoos look too much like they were only interested in entertaining the public.  Then, I started worrying that I was too much of a stick-in-the-mud whiner and decided to enjoy it.

All of the good work that a zoo does depends on the support of the public.  The support of the public has always been helped along with cute baby animals.  And besides, it's not like keepers themselves don't love a cute baby picture or two... or three... or hundred.

Friday, May 13, 2016

From the News: Cincinnati-born Sumatran rhino sires calf



Sometimes it has got to seem like this blog requires two or three Sumatran rhino posts per month.  It is a ridiculous amount of attention that I give to one species, of which I have only ever seen one individual.  That being said, my encounter with Harapan, a few years back in Cincinnati Zoo, was one of the most significat moments in my career as a zookeeper.  It was there, in that behind-the-scenes tour of the rhino barn, that it really dawned on me that extinction was really happening all around us.  I knew it as an academic fact, but to actually touch an animal, and, while my hand was still on it, be told that it will almost certainly be gone in my lifetime?  That made an impression.

So after the bad rhino news from last month, I thought I'd counterbalance with some good rhino news.  Great rhino news, actually.  It's nice to see that, even without rhinos at their zoo anymore, Cincinnati is leaving a legacy of conservation for one of the planet's rarest animals.