Philadelphia Zoo on a mission to save birds

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life) - One of the world’s rarest birds sits on a perch in an enclosure at Philadelphia Zoo’s new McNeil Avian Center.

The Micronesian kingfisher, now extinct in its native Guam, is one of just 103 known to exist worldwide. All are in zoos, which are trying to rebuild the population to the point where some birds can be reintroduced to the wild.

The tiny blue and gold kingfisher is one of about 120 birds to occupy the new center in a permanent exhibition that encourages visitors to protect common birds by showing them the wonders of about 60 exotic species from around the world.

“We hope that we get people engaged enough that they will look at the most common birds in a different way,” said Andrew Baker, the zoo’s chief operating officer.

He believes birds, 12 percent of which are now classified as threatened worldwide, represent a special opportunity for conservationists to establish a link between visitors to zoos and the wild creatures they have come to see.

The $17 million center, a rebuilding of the zoo’s old bird house dating from 1916, contains notices detailing how visitors can protect birds. They include keeping cats indoors, planting native species of plants that birds can feed on, and installing feeders away from windows to avoid the collisions with glass that kill or injure many birds.

The conservation message is reinforced by “green” aspects of the new center’s construction, including 52 geothermal wells that aid heating and cooling, sustainably harvested wood and an emphasis on natural light.

The 12,000-square-foot center, which opens on May 30, contains many spectacular birds that occupy the simulated forest and savannah habitats and can be seen just feet away from visitors.

They include a pair of huge rhinoceros hornbills, named for the bony structure on top of their bills, the African hammerkop, known for its huge chaotic nest of sticks, and the crimson-rumped toucanette.

The center also houses a flightless Guam rail, which like the Micronesian kingfisher, was rescued in the 1980s from its native habitat where a non-native snake has pushed its numbers to dangerously low levels.

Both species were thought to be incapable of surviving in the wild. Ornithologists, led by experts from the Philadelphia Zoo, captured every bird they could find -- 29 kingfishers and 23 rails -- and transferred them to U.S. zoos where the populations are gradually recovering.

The Philadelphia Zoo is hoping to find a mate for its lone male Micronesian kingfisher so it can begin a breeding program. The center’s mission is most obvious in a theater that tells the story of bird migration through film and cartoons tracing the progress of “Otis the Oriole”, an animated migrant whose real-life species is a familiar summer visitor to the Philadelphia region.

The show explains the reasons for bird migration and traces the migratory path of the oriole and other species, highlighting the hazards faced by migrating birds including destruction of habitat, depletion of food supplies and the lighting of city skyscrapers which disorient and kill many migrating birds.

The show also sounds the alarm for the red knot, a shore bird whose U.S. population has been depleted by the over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs whose eggs fuel the birds on Delaware Bay beaches during their 10,000-mile migration to Arctic breeding grounds each spring.

Aliza Baltz, the zoo’s bird curator, said she hopes the new center will strengthen visitors’ sense of connection with familiar birds.

“I hope it will show people how amazing birds are and will motivate them to get out in their own back yards,” she said.