Notes from the Field: Project Launched to Monitor Wild Bats at Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is going to bat for a misunderstood species.

Contrary to what pop culture would have you believe, bats are critically important to the environment. They are considered to be essential pollinators in some parts of the world. They also help control populations of insects including mosquitos – which can spread diseases to humans and other animals – and moths, which can significantly damage crops.

In fact, bats are said to save U.S. farmers more than $3 billion a year in agricultural production, according to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), which kicked off Bat Conservation Week (October 24-31) by announcing $1.36 million in grants to find a cure for a disease that is threatening several species of bats. Known as white-nose syndrome, this disease has wiped out more than 6 million bats in North America in the past decade.

The Detroit Zoological Society supports Bat Conservation International (BCI), one of the beneficiaries of the NFWF grant, which is not only working to conserve endangered species of bats, but also to preserve bat “hot spots” around the world and launch a global bat database for the more than 1,300 species of bats existing on the planet.

The DZS is committed to the conservation of bats, and supporting BCI is one part of a comprehensive plan. Staff is engaged in a bat monitoring project to determine which of the nine species of bats native to Michigan are using the Detroit Zoo as a wild habitat. An acoustic monitor senses the ultrasonic bat calls and creates a graph showing the frequency and characteristics of the calls. This system also changes the frequency so the calls can be heard by human ears. In addition to documenting which species are present, staff will also be able to determine what behaviors the bats are engaged in while making the calls, such as feeding or socializing. This project will also explore which species migrate from the Zoo during the winter.

Plans are also beginning to turn the former Penguinarium at the Detroit Zoo into a bat conservation center.

Notes from the Field: Tiny Shorebirds Get New Chance at Survival

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small shore bird that breeds in three distinct geographic locations; the beaches along the Atlantic coast, the shorelines of the Great Lakes, and along major rivers of the northern Great Plains. The Great Lakes population is classified as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the other two populations are classified as threatened.

At one point, this population of Great Lakes piping plovers was estimated to range from 12 to 32 breeding pairs. After extensive observation, scientists found that plover nests were abandoned and concluded that salvaging these abandoned eggs could contribute to the species’ recovery. For almost two decades, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has led the effort to collect these abandoned eggs, incubate them and rear the chicks that hatch until they can be released to join wild plovers.

The DZS operates the captive rearing facility at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, Mich., and oversees aviculturists from the Detroit Zoo and other Association of Zoos & Aquariums institutions who staff the facility from May through August. The dedicated zookeepers monitor the eggs during incubation and care for the chicks after they hatch. Once they are able to fly, after about four weeks, the birds – that would have otherwise perished – are banded and released into the wild. As they migrate to their wintering grounds, the plovers are identified by birders and photographers who report their findings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I spent five weeks this summer at the captive rearing center, working with what I believe are some of the cutest chicks in the world. While our conservation efforts have been incredibly successful over the last 17 years, the Great Lakes piping plover population is still less than 80 breeding pairs annually. This year, seven DZS zookeepers and 12 staff members from eight other zoos helped raise 16 chicks from abandoned eggs to join the more than 90 chicks that wild birds raised.

Adult piping plovers tend to breed around the shores of the Great Lakes on large patches of undisturbed sandy beach filled with cobble. Sometimes, their nests are washed out by waves, a parent is killed by a predator, or an unleashed dog causes abandonment. These nests are closely monitored and when staff has determined that the eggs are not being incubated, they are officially declared abandoned and the eggs are transferred to the captive rearing center. In some cases, such as when a storm is passing through, “dummy” eggs will be placed in the nest while the real eggs are placed in an incubator overnight and then returned the next day.

The captive rearing center has multiple incubators and equipment to nurture each egg and provide the conditions it needs to develop a healthy embryo. After almost four weeks in the egg, a little plover chick will spend two to four days hatching. Newly hatched chicks weigh about as much as three pennies yet are very mobile, looking for food within a few hours of hatching. When a full clutch of four chicks hatches, it looks like four cotton balls on eight toothpicks running around.

Rearing plover chicks properly and assuring they will be ready for release is no easy task. We weigh the chicks every morning and observe them to make sure each bird is thriving. Bonnie Van Dam, the DZS’s associate curator of birds and manager of the captive rearing operations, fields any questions from staff. One chick in particular needed a little more help from staff this year as it had difficulty hatching, curved toes, bowed legs and some feather abnormalities (genetic issues that can’t be avoided), but zookeepers did not give up on this little chick, providing antibiotics, extra feeds and extra practice flying. In the end, although a little different, this bird had incredible character running around and flying well.

We routinely feed the birds a variety of insects every few hours while they also learn to forage on wild insects. They grow fast and their flight feathers start coming in within two weeks. At 17 or 18 days old, the piping plovers are starting to stretch their wings and by 25-27 days they should be flying well. We have one flight pen along the beach where the plovers grow, forage and learn natural behaviors; another is attached to our building to give them outdoor access overnight and more space to practice flying.

Plover fledglings are usually released between 28 and 33 days old. This year we reared 16 chicks that were released into the wild. Most releases occur in an area where there are similarly aged wild chicks; often the releases happen at Sleeping Bear Dunes. It is an incredible feeling opening the door to the crate and letting these small chicks fly free. They immediately start foraging, bathing and or flying around. With a little luck and some decent wind, they will make it to the Atlantic coast or maybe even the Bahamas, enjoy winter, and return to northern Michigan next spring. On August 14, we released the final four birds of the season at Sleeping Bear Dunes, including the special little chick who needed all the extra help. This bird ran down the beach and almost immediately started flying! Each piping plover is a special part of our Great Lakes ecosystem – please be mindful as you share the beaches with these charismatic yet fragile friends.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field – Wolf/Moose Research Continues on Isle Royale

The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) ongoing involvement in the important conservation project Wolves & Moose of Isle Royale – the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world – continued with a recent expedition to this remote island.

 

Isle Royale is located in the frigid waters of Lake Superior. At more than 40 miles long, it is the largest island in the largest of the Great Lakes. This national park is also home to a population of wolves and moose – moose first came in the early 1900s and wolves joined in the 1940s after crossing an “ice bridge” from Canada. For more than five decades, researchers have studied the lives of these animals and their fluctuating populations in order to better understand the ecology of predation and in turn, gain a better sense of our relationship with nature.

 

I recently traveled to Isle Royale with David Anthony, a DZS education specialist, to conduct research for this project. We took the ferry from Grand Portage, Minnesota to the Windigo Ranger Station on the southwest end of the island – the opposite side from where we conducted fieldwork in 2016.

 

Because ice bridges form more rarely between Isle Royale and Canada due to the changing climate, the wolf population at this location has dropped to only two closely related individuals. The Wolf-Moose Project currently focuses on how the moose population is responding to reduced wolf predation and how the forest is responding to the increased moose population. While there is a proposal to reintroduce more wolves, it is a complicated issue in part because Isle Royale is also a national park. The National Park Service is expected to decide on this proposal this fall.

 

Once we arrived at Windigo, we donned our heavy backpacks in a light rain for a 5-mile hike to our first camp, which was situated next to a large beaver pond. It was a cold, rainy night and rather unpleasant, but it was a relief that the next day was sunny and we were able to dry out our clothes and equipment.

We hiked 2-3 miles each day, carefully looking for moose bones in the dense forest, traveling up and down ridges and through swamps. On our first full day in the field, we located a nearly complete skeleton with an antlered skull. The skulls and teeth were an especially successful find, because when cut into a cross section, the rings of dentin in the teeth can be counted to age the moose – similar to counting tree rings – which provides important information on the moose population. The bones are also examined for signs of chewing by wolves as well as signs of arthritis – many moose at Isle Royale live longer and are more prone to developing arthritis than moose in areas with more predators.

 With this information, we then try to surmise the cause and time of death to learn more about when wolves were still predating or scavenging moose. Our team also documented the harmful effects moose are having on Isle Royale’s fir trees. Moose rely on the relatively soft fir tree needles for food during the winter, and in many areas, they have continually browsed the tops of fir trees so they stay short and cannot reproduce. With taller, reproducing fir trees becoming scarce on the island, the over-browsing of the short fir trees is a serious concern.

 

After several days, we hiked to our next camp on the shore of a sheltered harbor on Lake Superior. This site was situated next to an active beaver lodge that kept us up at night with tail slapping and the “kerplunk” of beavers diving under water. On our next trek, we found another, even larger antlered skull, and there was more clear evidence of wolf predation – or at least scavenging – with chewed-up leg bones found dragged away to shady trees nearby.

As we wrapped up our journey, we connected with another group of researchers exploring a different part of the island; both teams returned with moose bones and teeth for examination, marking a very successful field expedition.

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– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Help us Protect a Billion Birds from Untimely Deaths

Every year, thousands of avid birders flock to important birding areas in the state of Michigan, hoping to see or hear a few of the millions of birds that are migrating to their breeding grounds. Birds migrate north to their breeding grounds mid-March through May; they then migrate south to their wintering grounds mid-August through October. Unfortunately, many migratory birds will meet an untimely death by colliding with glass or manmade structures, a phenomenon known as a bird collision or bird strike. It has been estimated that up to 1 billion bird-collision deaths occur every year in the U.S., according to the American Bird Conservancy. As humans continue to build structures that contain glass, the threat of bird collisions will also continue.

Birds and humans have a different visual system – we see the world differently. Glass appears invisible to birds and becomes a dangerous barrier they are unable to avoid. Oftentimes as a result, birds will fly directly into windows, causing fatal injuries. In some cases, a bird will fly away after a collision, but it will likely succumb to its injuries elsewhere.

The good news is that there are many things we can do to prevent these collisions from happening. Windows with blinds on them can be made safer to birds by keeping them partially or fully closed. Moving plants away from windows without blinds can prevent birds from thinking they can land on them. Moving bird feeders to within 3 feet of windows or more than 30 feet away from windows can prevent these collisions. There are also a variety of window films that reduce reflection on the outside of windows: ABC BirdTape can be hung vertically – 4 inches apart, or horizontally – 2 inches apart. One of the most common preventative measures people use is decals. Decals come in many shapes and forms but the most common type used is a bird silhouette decal. Companies and homeowners can also build bird-friendly buildings by incorporating reduced visibility of glass, incorporating designs in/on glass and minimizing the use of glass.

 

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The Detroit Zoological Society believes it’s important to take care of all birds, not just those that live at the Detroit Zoo. The DZS has been committed to tracking and preventing bird collisions on Zoo grounds since 2013. All newly hired employees are required to attend orientation and learn how to recognize and report bird collisions to their supervisors. Bird department personnel have used a variety of measures including ABC BirdTape, custom CollidEscape window film and bird decals to prevent collisions. The Polk Penguin Conservation Center has specially designed “fritted” glass, and we recently incorporated custom ORNILUX Bird Protection Glass into the renovated giraffe building – this glass contains a patterned UV coating, making it visible to birds but transparent to the human eye. Detroit Zoo visitors have access to educational flyers and displays about bird collisions at various locations throughout the Zoo and ABC BirdTape is available for purchase at the Zoofari Market.

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We encourage the community to take preventative measures to protect wild birds from colliding with windows in their homes, schools and businesses. Residents and property managers of high-rise buildings, apartments and condominiums can participate in the Detroit Audubon’s Project Safe Passage Great Lakes by turning off all building lights at night on unoccupied floors and spaces. Lights left on in buildings overnight are a major cause of nighttime collisions that kill millions of birds.

– Bonnie Van Dam is the associate curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Wildlife Conservation: All Along the Water Tower

Peregrine falcons are a cliff-nesting species whose populations were significantly reduced in the 1950s as a result of environmental contamination by the pesticide DDT. This dangerous chemical accumulated in adult birds and caused thin-shelled eggs, which broke during incubation. The population declined rapidly and by the early 1960s, peregrine falcons were extinct in the eastern U. S.; the last known pair nested in Michigan in 1957. It was one of the first species listed by the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

An effort to reintroduce peregrine falcons into urban environments began in 1982 when chicks were released, or “hacked”, from buildings, bridges and other man-made structures in cities throughout the eastern U.S. Because they strictly hunt birds, peregrines find ample prey in cities with their abundance of pigeons, doves, starlings and other city-dwelling species. This successful reintroduction effort led to peregrines nesting in cities throughout the Midwest and a growing population not only in cities, but in much of their former natural range such as the cliffs along Lake Superior. The now wild peregrine population did so well that they were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999.

Peregrines currently nest at a number of locations in southeast Michigan including in Warren, Pontiac, Southfield, Grosse Pointe and seven different sites in Detroit. They nest in other Michigan cities as well including Grand Rapids, Lansing and Jackson. Many of the chicks are banded with unique combinations that allow for individual identification when they mature and establish their own nests. Locally, the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) veterinary staff works with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the banding effort by performing health assessments as bands are put on pre-fledged chicks.

This past summer, DZS staff and local birders noticed a pair of peregrines perching on the Detroit Zoo’s iconic water tower and hunting pigeons at the Zoo and in Royal Oak. While difficult to see, the male was identified as Justice, a bird hatched in 2012 at the Jackson County Tower Building with a band combination of black/red, 08/P. The female is not banded so we do not know her age or hatch location, but they are a well bonded pair that is still observed around the Zoo.

Often when a pair of peregrines establish a territory such as the water tower with plentiful prey nearby, they will end up nesting at that site. Peregrines lay their eggs on gravel or dirt with minimal nesting material. Because the water tower did not have a proper area for the birds to build a nest, DZS staff worked with the DNR to design and construct a nest box that will meet the needs of the nesting birds. The box was recently installed on the water tower, which was not an easy task. The box is on the southeast side to offer protection from the wind while exposed to ample sunshine. It is visible from the westbound service drive as you wait for the light at Woodward.

We are thrilled that peregrines have chosen the Detroit Zoo as a home along with other native birds, such as the turkey vultures, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants and even the occasional visiting bald eagle. We are optimistic that peregrines will join the species that also nest at the Zoo, which includes wood ducks, green herons and the highly visible breeding colony of black-crowned night herons, a species normally found in secluded wetlands.

– Tom Schneider is the curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Education: Instilling Respect for Gorillas and the Environment in the Congo

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE), located in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). GRACE is truly a special place – it is the only facility in the world that cares for highly endangered Grauer’s gorillas that have been rescued by wildlife authorities after being illegally captured by poachers and traders.

Grauer’s gorillas are endemic to this region and only approximately 4,000 remain in the wild. There are currently 14 gorillas residing at GRACE, where a dedicated Congolese staff provides daily care and monitors the group while they explore a 24-acre forest – the largest gorilla enclosure in the world.

GRACE is overseen by a dedicated board of directors, which includes Ron Kagan, Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) CEO and executive director, who has also served as board chair. In addition to Ron’s valuable leadership, the DZS’s involvement with GRACE also includes financial and staff support. In 2015, Ron helped secure funds for a new night house enclosure for the gorillas, which I was able to see in operation while I was there. Also in 2015, DZS Director of Animal Health Dr. Ann Duncan traveled to the Congo to perform health examinations on 12 gorillas, which had never been done before.

I traveled to the DRC with three staff members from Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the executive director of GRACE as part of the GRACE Education Advisory Group. We carried quite a bit of luggage with us, which included a number of veterinary medicines and supplies provided by the DZS.

While at GRACE, we worked extensively with the Congolese education team. We observed current programs, provided our feedback and facilitated trainings focused on methodology, messaging and differentiating instruction to meet the needs of their various audiences. We also began to draft a strategic plan for their education programming and evaluation efforts as they move forward. The team’s reach is vast; not only do they work with primary and secondary school groups onsite and in local villages, they also conduct programs with community groups and the military, to name a few. GRACE doesn’t have open visitation hours, so all of the groups that they work with have been scheduled by the educators. Throughout all that the team does, there’s a common theme of instilling reverence and respect for not only gorillas, but all animals and the environment. They work with people of all ages to help foster behavioral changes that result in a positive impact for people, animals and their shared home.

I can’t say enough about the amazing people that I met throughout the course of our visit. The team at GRACE is truly a hard-working, dedicated, passionate group of people and they give tremendous hope for the future. Additionally, on our last day at GRACE, we were fortunate to take part in a tour of the local village, led by the women’s cooperative, where we met many members of the community. We were invited into homes to see cooking demonstrations and to learn about some of the small-scale businesses they own and operate. We also visited Muyisa Primary School, where we were greeted with song and dance and hundreds of smiling faces. Everywhere we went, people were kind and welcoming. They definitely made it difficult for me to leave.

As we move forward, the Education Advisory Group and the Congolese educators will continue to meet by way of monthly conference calls. We’ll continue to advise efforts and offer additional training. I’ll also be working on developing humane education curriculum and projects for the children’s conservation clubs which currently exist in five communities. Stay tuned for more to come on that!

– Lisa Forzley is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Berman Academy for Humane Education.

Notes from the Field: Adopt-A-School Assessments in the Amazon

When the boat beached for the third time on a sand bar, we knew we were in for a long day. Late autumn means low water in the Peruvian Amazon, requiring more walking than boating to get around. I was in the rainforest with a Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) colleague, representatives from our Peruvian partner, the Civil Association for Conservation of the Peruvian Amazon Environment (CONAPAC), and several volunteer educators from the nearby city of Iquitos. We were conducting our annual end of the school-year evaluations in the Amazon Rainforest Adopt-A-School program communities and we were in for a long, hot day.

The Adopt-A-School program is a decades-long partnership between the DZS and CONAPAC, using donations to provide educational supplies to schools, teachers and students in rural Amazonia. The program ensures that students have the materials necessary to earn a basic education and build an understanding of the complex and globally important region they call home.

The evaluations we conduct each fall coincide with the end of the school year in Peru – late November to early December – and are a great opportunity to focus on each community’s strengths and challenges.

The experienced boat drivers know when to call it quits and ours realized there was no viable path down the parched river. He dropped off us off on a muddy river bank and we gathered our supplies and trudged up the bank to a path on the jungle’s edge. An easy half hour walk brought us to a familiar animal sanctuary and a long dock that stretched into the tributary we needed to travel up to get to our assigned communities.

The dock stretched toward the water but ended on a muddy beach, not quite reaching the shallow, murky water. At first, the damp mud was easy to traverse, the sand holding firm. Then the river bank dropped off and the choice was to wade through the mucky water or climb the bank and walk through giant grasses that stood 10 to 12 feet tall. We chose the grasses.

After another half hour of battling grass stalks as thick as sapling trees and covered with spines, the river’s edge dropped back down to a sandy pathway. We gratefully slid down and continued our walk. Soon, a wooden boat about 10 feet long with a small outboard motor came towards us. After some negotiation, all 11 of us piled on board. We carefully balanced our bags and ourselves for an easier, albeit slow ride up the shallow river. A full three hours after we set out, my small team and I arrived at one of the communities that we were assigned to evaluate.

Community evaluations are a critical part of the Adopt-A-School program. They confirm that participants are holding true to the contract of sustainable resource use, prioritizing education, and organized leadership in exchange for support from CONAPAC and the DZS. All 55 communities were visited and vetted through a comprehensive rubric that addressed environmental, educational and institutional management. The vast majority of the communities were rated as “good” or “excellent”; three were placed on a watch list and one was unfortunately cut from the program due to a breach of contract.

This community has faced some challenges over the past several years. Record floods wiped out crops and unsteady leadership let the community bakery and drinking-water purification plant fall into disarray. CONAPAC offered support in restarting the bakery to make it a potential profit source. Turning raw materials into a finished product has a higher profit margin and bread is a constant need in surrounding communities. CONAPAC also offered training and materials to restart and refurbish the water purification plant, ensuring there would be clean drinking water available. The community declined both offers.

When the evaluation team arrived to assess the community, they came across a large path of bare earth; huge machines had clear-cut a road into the rainforest. The community acknowledged that they had contracted with a lumber company who had cut a path into the forest, removing dozens of large, old-growth trees for a relatively nominal amount of money. The community leadership was neither remorseful nor willing to work with CONAPAC on other projects that would allow them to profit in an environmentally sustainable way. The evaluation team discussed and unanimously decided to remove the community from the Adopt-A-School program.

There is always an open door for communities removed from the Adopt-A-School program to rejoin. The process is careful and thoughtful, involving several community visits to ensure a change in either leadership or practice has prepared them to be a successful partner again. Many of the 54 communities currently in the program have participated for more than a decade and are both dedicated to protecting the rainforest and appreciative of the educational opportunities it provides for their children.

To learn more about the Adopt-A-School program and how you can make a difference in the life of a child in the Amazon rainforest, please visit https://detroitzoo.org/support/give/ and choose
“Amazon Rainforest Adopt-A-School Program” from the drop-down menu.

Our upcoming volunteer expedition is scheduled from March 25 to April 2, and spots are still available. Volunteers will help deliver donated school supplies to these communities in need along the Amazon and Napo rivers . For more information, visit detroitzoo.org/about/travel-programs/amazon-travel-program/ or contact clannoyehall@dzs.org and/or adewey@dzs.org.

Claire Lannoye-Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.