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An exercise in amethyst starling “dating”

Animal care professionals often talk about animals being paired up for breeding, or being recommended to breed. We all follow suggestions from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) on whether or not to encourage certain animals to breed. These recommendations are based on many variables such as genetics and space availability. But what happens when animals do not seem to get along with the mate who has been recommended? Zoo Atlanta’s Bird Department has recently run an experiment to try to re-pair our four pairs of amethyst starlings. All starlings are approved to breed with each other in any combination; and with an unsuccessful 2017 breeding season, something needed to change.

The re-pairing began with keepers removing all of the male starlings and creating a bachelor group in the outside hallway of our Bird Propagation Center. We then added perching to the inside keeper hallway and brought one male inside at a time. All of the females live side-by-side in separate areas, so they cannot see each other, but they can see the male starling in the hallway as he flies by. Each space has perches in front of them so the male starling can sit next to the female he “likes” the most. Keepers allow males to explore the hallway space for a few days and assess which female he seems to choose, and if the female seems to agree. We did this by determining where all of the bird poop seemed to be in the morning. Was there more poop in front of the female in habitat 6 or habitat 7? What about on the females’ side? Did she seem to sit next to the male as well? Once we were confident the birds made their choices, we would put them together and move them to the outside part of their habitat and allow the next male to have his turn.

So far one pair has remained faithful to each other, but the other three have switched mates. Cross your fingers we got our matches correct and keep an ear out for how our 2018 amethyst starling breeding season goes!
Christine Talleda
Lead Keeper, Birds

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