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On track with record keeping

You probably already know that animal care professionals are responsible for doing lots of things for the animals they care for, like feeding, cleaning, habitat maintenance, training … the list goes on! But have you wondered how we keep track of everything? How many of you have accidentally fed your dog twice? (No? Just me?) Now imagine keeping up with all 213 birds in the Bird Department. Making sure we’re on top of everything going on in the lives of every individual bird is a daunting task. So today I thought I’d write about record keeping and data management.

…Wait! Come back! It’s interesting, I promise!

The central hub of information for the whole Zoo is a piece of software called Tracks. It was developed by the Denver Zoo and is designed to be a comprehensive tool for keeping track (ha! Get it? Tracks?) of every individual animal living here at the Zoo. Every animal has a unique individual ID number. All sorts of life history information such as hatch dates, parents, how the bird was reared, etc., are kept in each bird’s file. Every day, we add any relevant information, such as the bird’s habitat location, weight, behavior, and any medical notes. These records together tell a story about the bird’s life that can all be found in one central location. This is really important not only for all of the care teams, Zoo managers, and veterinarians who are responsible for the bird’s care, but is also a critical record to pass along if the bird happens to move to a new home.

Birds have some unique aspects about their care that necessitate some more specialized, detailed record-keeping in addition to what we keep in Tracks. For example, many of our birds lay eggs throughout the year. In 2019, the birds at Zoo Atlanta laid 363 eggs! Of course, not all of these eggs were fertile and not all came from birds we wanted to breed. So how do we keep tabs on everything happening? Enter: the egg log. (I promise I won’t wax poetic about my love for Excel). Every egg that’s laid, whether or not it’s fertile, receives a unique egg number for the year. For example, you may have read about the milky eagle owls laying some eggs at the end of last year. Those eggs are #s 360 and 361-2019. These numbers allow us to collect lots of information about each egg so we can look for larger patterns. Lay dates, parents, habitat, location within habitat, date ranges incubated by parents, date ranges in our artificial incubators, and fertility of the egg are just some of the data points that we collect. You may ask, why do we care the exact location that a superb starling lays an egg? Well, one individual piece of data may not be very important in the moment, but it does help up look at larger trends and answer questions like “Which habitats are best-suited for a certain species to lay an egg?” or “What time(s) of year does this species usually breed?” It can also help us track outcomes of our eggs not only as a group, but also on the level of an individual bird.

Record-keeping isn’t exactly the reason most people get into the animal care specialist profession, but it is critical to providing the best possible care to the birds at the Zoo. Knowing this information isn’t just important to the birds living here at Zoo Atlanta; this information is an important contribution to the scientific record. Birds living at the Zoo can be individually identified and we can collect data such as their weights, behaviors, lifespans, etc., that aren’t feasible to collect from their wild counterparts. Knowing this information can help conservationists develop more effective, targeted plans for endangered species.
Taylor R.
Keeper III, Birds

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl