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Celebrating our first sunbittern chick

Today, I am coming to you from The Living Treehouse to introduce one of its newest occupants.  We have a sunbittern chick, the first ever known to hatch at Zoo Atlanta! Sunbitterns are a unique species that dwell in the tropical regions of Central and South America. Zoo Atlanta first welcomed a pair of sunbitterns in 2018, with hopes that they would breed. Due to the novelty of the species to our Bird Team, and after a lot of effort to help the pair find a suitable nest (that I made for them), we were very excited when the female laid her first egg in September.

Any time that we are breeding a species, we develop a plan for what to do with an egg once its laid. Our original plan for the sunbitterns, this being their first egg, was to give them experience by incubating the egg themselves until its hatching in early October. Sunbitterns sit on their eggs for 27 to 30 days. However, that plan quickly changed when Hurricane Sally hit Atlanta as a tropical storm. From the intense rainfall, the female ended up abandoning the egg in the middle of the night.

The following morning, I climbed up the tree to grab the egg. I replaced it with a fake egg that mimics the real egg, so if the parents came back to the nest they may choose to continue incubating and sitting on the egg. We were still concerned about the health of the real egg, so we brought it to our artificial incubators to be kept warm and hopefully keep developing.

Luckily, the egg survived the ordeal and hatched on October 9, 2020. The chick initially started out being in a hatcher, a container that keeps the chick warm during and after hatching. The next day, once we knew the chick was healthy and wouldn’t need any additional care, my teammates brought the chick back to The Living Treehouse aviary and placed the chick back on the nest under the parents.

There is nothing quite like the anxiety that we, as a team, feel the first few hours after a chick is back with the parents. Since the sunbittern pair were first-time parents, we had no idea how well they would care for the chick. Fortunately, the parents picked it up quickly. By the end of the day, they were pros at feeding the chick and defending it. We weighed the chick the first couple days it was back with the parents to make sure that it was getting fed enough. After that, we were pretty hands off. We found creative ways to get food to the parents by tossing food, putting baskets to place food bowls on the tree where their nest was, and even placing food items on branches using a grabber tool (like those used to pick up garbage).

The chick grew quickly in a three-week span, looking no longer as much like a chick and more like just a small version of the parents. The chicks stay in the nest for about a month, typically about 20 to 30 days. We prepared for the chick to fledge (leave the nest) at Day 20. Since the sunbittern nest was on a branch directly above the pool, we drained the pool and placed soft mats in and around the pool to provide padding. The chick safely fledged on November 8.  So, if you come to visit the Zoo in the next few weeks, you can see the little sunbittern chick running around on the ground in The Living Treehouse before the family is moved inside for the winter. 

Amanda J.
Keeper I, Birds

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