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A Parrot’s First Flight

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In the latest issue of the print magazine, I have a story about the kakapo, a cartoonishly cute species of parrot that looks like a parakeet crossed with an owl crossed with a Muppet. (You can read it here.) Kakapos are squat, chubby and flightless, and build their nests on the ground and in the open. They’re also nocturnal, and feel their way through the dark forests with patches of whisker-like feathers on their faces. The whole while, they give off a strong, musty scent that’s impossible to ignore. All of this made them easy pickings for human hunters, plus the dogs, cats, rats, and other predators that humans introduced the to the parrot's home in New Zealand. In just a few centuries, one of the country’s most common birds soon disappeared from the main islands, and today there are only 126 kakapo left in carefully monitored, predator-free communities on the smaller islands.

A handful of the birds were transferred to an island that is also, conveniently, one of the last remaining refuges of the Hades flower, an endangered plant that scientists only recently realized had strong ecological ties to the bird. I couldn’t get into too much detail about the transfer operation itself because of space constraints, so here’s the story of how a flightless bird finally took to the skies. 

In the early morning hours one April day last year, parrot wranglers from the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery Team (KRT) captured seven of the birds on Codfish and Anchor Islands by hand (all 126 remaining kakapo wear radio transmitters, so they’re easy to find) and placed them into individual pet carriers. Their destination: Hauturu, the “resting place of lingering breezes.”

Called Little Barrier Island in English, Hauturu had been home to a group of kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) in the early 1980s, but the birds had to be removed after the discovery of accidentally-introduced kiore, or Polynesian rats. With the island’s rats eradicated, the KRT hoped that Hauturu would now be safe for kakapo eggs and chicks, and a suitable place for a large, unmanaged kakapo population. On paper, it’s one of the last New Zealand islands where the birds could live without constant human babysitting. It’s big enough for the birds to live and breed there, and outside of the swimming range of rats, stoats, and other predators living on the other islands. 

After the kakapo were snatched up, they were taken by helicopter to the large South Island. There, they were loaded on an airplane and taken to North Island. At the Auckland airport, they were put on another helicopter and taken to Hauturu, where they were released from their carriers. 

That might sound stressful, but kakapo didn’t seem to mind.

“Kakapo appear to be hardy travelers and the main risk is heat stress,” Kakapo Recovery Program Manager Deidre Vercoe Scott said. The birds just needed to be kept cool and comfortable with some damp towels in their crates and some apples and carrots to snack on.

“This was one of the most complex transfers we have done simply because of the distance the birds had to travel,” Vercoe Scott said. “But with careful planning we were able to achieve it within a day, meaning the birds were not disturbed during their normal active period during the night.”

A few months after they arrived, the birds were captured again so KRT members could see how they were adjusting to their new digs. On the whole, Vercoe Scott said, they had settled in well and were in good health. A few of the birds had been part of the island’s previous kakapo population and seemed to have no problems coming back home again. One bird, after a 14 year absence, was able to find her old nesting sites and home range within a week of returning.

Sounds like a happy ending, but this is just the beginning of the kakapo’s adventures on Hauturu. The birds didn’t breed last year, and the KRT wasn’t expecting them to, so soon after transfer. This year might be different, and December through February, their human guardians will keep a close eye on them to “see whether or not they are keen,” said Vercoe Scott. These birds aren’t expected to establish a population on the island just yet, though, so there’s no pressure for romance. Rather, they’re pioneers and guinea pigs testing the suitability of Hauturu as a long-term, unmanaged home. Their service to their species could last as long as 10 years, giving conservationists enough data on breeding success to make the call on whether the birds will return to where they came from or be joined by waves of new settlers, and allowed to live alone and in peace on the little island where lingering breezes rest. 

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Watch as Hummingbirds Fly, Drink, and Flap Their Tiny Wings in Slow Motion
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Hummingbirds have more feathers per inch than nearly any other bird, but it’s hard to fully appreciate their luminescent colors when they beat their wings between 70 to 200 times per second.

For the enjoyment of birders everywhere, National Geographic photographer Anand Varma teamed up with bird biologists and used a high-speed, high-resolution camera to capture the tiny creatures in slow motion as they flew through wind tunnels, drank artificial nectar from a glass vessel, and shook water from their magnificent plumage.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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9 Wild Facts About the Bronx Zoo
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Even if you’ve never set foot in New York, you almost certainly know of the Bronx Zoo. Opening its doors for the first time in 1899, this sprawling 250-acre wildlife reservation has over 4000 different animals and 650 species. Take a look at a few things you might not have known about one of the world’s most famous zoological retreats.

1. IT WAS CO-CREATED BY A TAXIDERMIST.

William Temple Hornaday was working as a taxidermist for the Smithsonian Institution when he noticed that the nation’s population of bison was shrinking. Eager to promote conservation efforts, Hornaday used his voice with the Smithsonian to spread the word about the threatened species. After a spat with the Institution, he was approached by the New York Zoological Society in 1896 to serve as director of the Bronx Zoo. In doing so, Hornaday helped bring the bison back from the brink of extinction by sending several of the Zoo's bison back out west in 1906. He remained with the zoo for 30 years.

2. IT ONCE HOUSED TASMANIAN TIGERS.

Thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers, were nearing extinction in the early 1900s, but the Bronx Zoo was able to acquire several for exhibition beginning in 1902. The first lived for six years; the next two, arriving in 1912 and 1916, lived only a short time in captivity before perishing. The zoo's last thylacine was secured in 1917. The species was thought to have died out in 1936, but in early 2017, several eyewitness accounts of the distinctive animals were reported in Australia. Zoologists are working to determine if the thylacine might still be alive.

3. THEY EXHIBITED A MAN.

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In the most ignoble chapter in the zoo’s history, organizers opened an attraction in 1906 that featured a "Mbuti pygmy” or “bushman”—an African man named Ota Benga. Benga and other tribesmen had been brought to America by anthropologist Samuel Verner at the behest of organizers of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair so visitors could gawk at them in mock-up villages. When the fair was over, Verner brought Benga and others back to Africa: the two struck up a friendship, and Benga reportedly asked to come back to the States. Verner approached the Bronx Zoo with the prospect of Benga becoming a fixture: Hornaday agreed to let him live on and roam the grounds. Public outrage followed, and Benga was released after just two weeks to the care of an orphanage. He committed suicide in 1916.

4. THE ZOOKEEPERS HAD TO BE TOLD NOT TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE BEARS.

Too much children’s literature about cuddly bears may have proven disastrous for early zookeepers at the park. In 1919, Hornaday told the New York Tribune that he had to constantly warn his employees not to try and befriend the mammoth bears housed on the property. Two keepers ignored his advice; both had to be pried from the clutches of the bear and suffered “severe” injuries.

5. IT’S HOME TO A REMNANT OF THE ICE AGE.

Not all of the Zoo’s attractions are feathered or furred. The Rocking Stone sits near the World of Darkness exhibit and packs 30 dense tons into a formation standing 7 feet tall and 10 feet wide. The boulder was carried by glaciers in the last Ice Age. The “rocking” label came from the fact that the stone was so perfectly balanced that it could be moved with slight pressure. The Zoo, fearing someone might one day push it too far, eventually shored up the base to keep it on firmer footing.

6. THEY ONCE SAVED A SPECIES OF TOAD THAT WAS DECLARED EXTINCT.

The kihansi spray toad was in dire circumstances in 2009: A hydroelectric dam in Tanzania had dried up mists showering a five-acre area near Kihansi Gorge, the toad's only known micro-habitat, and the species was officially declared extinct in the wild. Fortunately, Tanzanian authorities had seen the situation coming and allowed the Bronx Zoo to come in and obtain 499 toads to bring back to America. A portion went to the Toledo Zoo; both facilities spent nearly a decade breeding them in a captive assurance population. The Zoos replicated their habitat while Tanzania created a gravity-operated misting system that would restore water. Roughly 100 toads were returned in 2010 as test cases; a full-scale reintroduction followed in 2012.

7. A COBRA ONCE ESCAPED (AND SIGNED ONTO TWITTER).

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Animal escapes have been few and far between at the Zoo. One of the most publicized was the the disappearance of a 20-inch venomous Egyptian cobra in 2011. Zoo officials weren’t certain how the reptile broke out of her habitat, but felt confident she would remain in the building. She did, and was found after a week’s search. In the interim, someone on Twitter engaged 203,000 followers with the freed snake’s fictional exploits. It’s still tweeting.

8. IT SET AN ORIGAMI ELEPHANT WORLD RECORD.

In 2016, the Zoo was recognized by Guinness World Records as having the largest displayed collection of origami elephants in the world: 78,564. The display, which was briefly open to the public, was intended to draw attention to the plight of the creatures and their poaching rivals through their 96 Elephants campaign meant to stop the trafficking of ivory. The Zoo is down to just three live elephants, and has vowed not to acquire any more once they pass. On August 3, 2017, Zoo organizers plan to crush two tons of ivory in Central Park as part of the awareness campaign.

9. IT HAS PLANS FOR YOUR POOP.

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With thousands of daily visitors, the Bronx Zoo could probably make use of its own sewage system. Instead, the park unveiled an eco-friendly restroom on park grounds in 2006 that captures human waste and diverts it into compost. The system, which uses only six ounces of water per flush, is estimated to save a million gallons of water a year.

Want to learn more about the Bronx Zoo? Catch The Zoo, a documentary series now airing on Animal Planet. New episodes premiere in February.

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