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Hatching of a critically endangered vulture

The chick, currently being “puppet reared,” is the first vulture ever hatched at Zoo Atlanta.

Zoo Atlanta is celebrating the hatching of a critically endangered species. A hooded vulture chick hatched on April 9, 2020, marking the first time vultures of any species have successfully reproduced at the Zoo.

The Zoo’s Bird Team was cautiously optimistic on discovering an egg in the nest of first-time parents Acacia and Tai in February. Because of the species’ critically endangered status and the inexperience of the parent birds, out of an abundance of caution, the team removed the egg to be artificially incubated. The viable egg was replaced with a “dummy,” or false egg, so that Acacia and Tai could practice incubation and the Bird Team could learn what they might have done with a real egg. When the parents did not demonstrate proper incubation of the “dummy” egg, the team determined that hand-raising was the safest option to ensure the chick’s survival.

“This hatching is such an exciting and happy milestone for Zoo Atlanta, especially during times that are so challenging for everyone. Not only is this, to our knowledge, the first vulture ever hatched at the Zoo, but the chick is also a new member of a group of animals in urgent need of conservation action,” said Jennifer Mickelberg, PhD, Vice President of Collections and Conservation. “Vultures are vital contributors to their ecosystems, and not everyone may realize just how much we need them. We hope that in continuing to share more about this chick’s growth and milestones, we can draw more attention to these issues.”

Vultures are highly intelligent and are known to imprint, or gain their sense of species identification, at a very young age. As a result, vultures that are raised by humans run the risk of associating themselves with humans, rather than with vultures, generally resulting in a negative impact on reproductive success in adulthood. To ensure that the chick develops and grows in identification with vultures, the team has employed a strategy called “puppet rearing,” in which the chick is fed by and interacts with a hand puppet designed to basically resemble an adult hooded vulture. When caring for the chick, bird care specialists do not speak or use other human vocalizations and aim at all times to remain invisible to the chick.

While the team’s near-term focus is on the chick’s growth and development – care that includes not just feeding, but helping the chick acclimate to appropriate temperatures and changing the substrate of its environment to ensure proper foot development – the hope is that it may be introduced to other hooded vultures in the future to continue to sustain its species identification. Future milestones for the chick include eating on its own and fledging, or leaving the nest.

Hooded vultures are African vultures, a group of birds that is in universal decline in the wild, with some populations having declined by more than 95 percent. One of their most pressing threats is poisoning, both unintentional and intentional. Poachers are known to poison animal carcasses to kill vultures to prevent the birds from circling overhead – a sign to wildlife trafficking enforcement agencies that carcasses of illegally-hunted large game, such as elephants, are in the area. Vultures are also killed by belief-based poisoning for ritual use. Earlier this year, at least 1,600 hooded vultures were killed in belief-based poisonings in western Africa over a time period of only around two months.

The removal of vultures from any wild environment can have catastrophic ecological consequences. As scavengers, consuming carrion which most other animals will not eat, vultures likely help to prevent the spread of diseases such as anthrax, botulism, cholera, rabies and tuberculosis.

Zoo Atlanta has supported African vulture conservation through its Mabel Dorn Reeder Conservation Endowment Fund. In partnership with the conservation organization VulPro, the Zoo has supported surveys of nesting sites used by hooded vultures and another critically endangered vulture species, the white-backed vulture; the surveys have been used to establish baseline data to determine population trends and identify and work to mitigate immediate threats to the vultures’ breeding sites.

The Zoo is also a program partner of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) African Vulture SAFE® (Saving Animals from Extinction) program. African Vulture SAFE has worked with partners in the field to combat direct threats to vultures in key range countries in Africa.

In addition to hooded vultures, Zoo Atlanta is also home to another African vulture species, the endangered lappet-faced vulture, and a New World species, the king vulture.

Follow Zoo Atlanta on Facebook and Instagram today (Monday, May 4) for behind-the-scenes content devoted to the hooded vulture chick and its care.

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