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Observing birds in nature can help protect them in captivity

Understanding how birds species live in their natural habitats can help inform zoos on how to protect birds in captivity, according to research conducted by Dr. Paul Rose of the University of Exeter. In addition, observations of captive birds can guide conservation strategies for birds living in the wild.

“Research into wild birds is extremely useful for furthering how birds are managed in zoos,” said Dr Rose. “For species of conservation concern, zoo professionals can be linked with field biologists to share information on how to best care for these species in captivity and how to develop and formulate conservation actions.”

“We can use proxy species – those common in zoos – to develop practices for conservation that can be used for less familiar species that might be of concern and need help from information gathered through things such as captive breeding.”

“Or we can promote the threats that these not-in-the-zoo species face by using the commoner species as an ambassador. We do this through my work at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, promoting the rarer species of flamingo that are in the wild using the commoner ones we keep in the living collection.”

The analysis was focused on the helmeted hornbill, which plays an important role in seed dispersal in pristine areas of southeastern Asian rainforests. These birds are critically endangered as a result of poaching.

While some species of large hornbill can be found in captivity, the helmeted hornbill cannot. By studying the ecological role of the helmeted hornbill in its natural habitat, zoos have been able to design enclosures that will increase chances of reproduction.

For example, experts identified the temperature and humidity range of hornbill nesting sites in the wild, where eggs are more likely to hatch. Zoos can now match these environmental conditions as closely as possible.

Zoos have also been able to guide conservation action for hornbills living in the wild by monitoring the behavior of these birds. Researchers discovered that using nest boxes enhances the quality of breeding habitats for hornbills. As a result, nest boxes have been built in areas of the helmeted hornbill’s range in Borneo.

“The effect of visitors on zoos can also help direct future research questions and increase understanding of birds under human care,” said Dr. Rose.

“Developing zoo bird exhibits to theme them around specific conservation messages can be used to promote wider understanding of the threats faced by wild birds specifically and hopefully encourage human behavior change that benefits ecosystem health.”

The study is published in the journal Birds.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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