Soaring into a new year with the same EGG-cellent team!

From the Africa: Okavango Delta section to the Asia: Trail of the Tiger to the Zoo Farm, our Bird Keeper Team flies around the Zoo caring for a variety of bird species. As is the case with all of our animal keepers, the Bird Team’s job is to care for and monitor the wellbeing of most of the birds that call the Virginia Zoo home. This includes preparing diets, providing enrichment, training, giving medications, cleaning exhibit areas and anything else the animals may need.

The team works hard every day to not only care for our Zoo’s feathered residents, but also to build relationships and trust with their animals in order to provide the best care possible. These connections are pivotal to keeping our animals healthy and happy. An animal that trusts its keeper will often voluntarily participate in routine health practices like injections and blood draws.

Bird Team left to right: Katie, Alex, Jaxx, and intern Alexis

Our Bird Team consists of Alex, Katie, and Jaxx. Together they look after:

  • Kenya crested guineafowl and Southern screamers in the Zoo Farm
  • Oropendolas and Victoria crowned pigeons in the World of Reptiles Conservatory.
  • Taveta golden weavers, snowy-headed robin chat, and white-headed buffalo weavers in the Africa: Okavango Delta section.
  • Emus and Southern cassowaries near Flora Point.
  • Chinese hwamei, laughing kookaburras, white-crested laughing thrush, tawny frogmouths, rhinoceros hornbills, Southern cassowaries, and cinereous vultures on the Asia:Trail of the Tiger.
  • They also care for any birds living behind the scenes and carefully monitor eggs in incubation.
Victoria crowned pigeon
Rhinoceros hornbill

One of the Bird Team’s proudest accomplishments in 2023 was their dedicated care of several successful hatchlings! Over the past year alone, they have helped raise a crested oropendola, as well as the Zoo’s first crested guinea fowl keets and a white-headed buffalo weaver.

The crested oropendolas have been known to make interesting looking nests around the aviary in our World of Reptiles Conservatory. This year, our Bird Team had the opportunity to hand-rear a chick whose nest became compromised and whose mother had abandoned her – a behavior that can also occur in the wild. The chick was about 10 days old when the Bird Team stepped in to finish raising the chick behind the scenes. With the help of her amazing keepers, Indigo, or Indy for short, has been able to reintegrate into her flock and is now thriving!

Indigo, crested oropendola
Dahlia, white-crested buffalo weaver

Our white-headed buffalo weaver breeding pair, Todd and Margo, who live on our Africa Trail, had their first hatchling, Dahlia, on August 31. Being a parent is hard, and although our birds are recommended for breeding by one of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plans (SSP), parenting instincts don’t always come naturally. Most of the eggs laid this year were actually infertile and the pair proved inconsistent in incubating the egg to term during the short period required to hatch any potential offspring. As a result, the Bird Team had to step in to help incubate the egg. This involved regularly turning the egg, as well as closely monitoring the temperature and humidity to ensure proper growth of the embryo. On the 15th day of incubation Dahlia hatched, but the work didn’t stop for her keepers. Since Dahlia was not physically with her parents at birth and she is an altricial animal, meaning one that is completely dependent on parental care for initial survival (like humans!), our keepers stepped up in a big way to hand feed her up to 12 times per day!

Keepers often communicate with other institutions and professionals when they need information on an aspect of animal care they might not have experienced previously. In the case of the new buffalo weaver, our Assistant Curator of Birds, Alex, was able to reach out to other zoos to learn which behaviors were successful and which were not in hand-raising buffalo weavers to better guide their care of Dahlia. As our Zoo is a part of AZA, this network is an extremely helpful resource to our keepers in ensuring the best possible care of our animals.

The Kenya crested guinea fowl breeding pair in our Zoo Farm, Cha-cha and Ernie, also had successful hatchlings in 2023. Our Bird Team helped with the incubation and hand-raising of two of their keets, Leaf and Meadow! The two have been under the watchful eye of our keepers since day one. This species is precocial, meaning they are able to survive independently almost immediately after hatching; so while they didn’t require as much hands-on care as Dahlia, they still needed to be taught how to eat and drink. They also needed to spend time outside every day to get the large amounts of vitamin D they would get from their native habitat, which is vital to their bone development.

Meadow, Kenya crested guinea fowl

Since white-headed buffalo weavers and Kenya crested guinea fowl are part of an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP), Dahlia, Leaf and Meadow will one day be matched with mates and likely transferred to another zoo to continue breeding and further the conservation of their species.

Cinereous vulture
Southern cassowary
Tawny frogmouth

We are extremely grateful for all the work that our bird keepers do in exhibits and behind the scenes to take care of our vast collection of birds. Their work is truly extraordinary and we can’t wait to see what they accomplish in 2024!