Flying High: Celebrating World Migratory Bird Day

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas — bird migration season! It’s the time of year when birds who left Michigan during the winter months to find refuge in warmer states make their triumphant return. Look outside, and you are likely to see robins, Canada geese and sandhill cranes among the birds flying in the spring Michigan skies, happy to be back after a cold winter away.

American robin, Jennifer Harte

While everyone at the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) celebrates these birds every day, we are encouraging the public to join us in celebrating and raising awareness around the conservation of local species on World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) May 14.

WMBD, formerly International Migratory Bird Day, is an annual campaign highlighting the need for the conservation of migratory birds and their habitats. Through a collaboration of festivals and events from partners across the globe, WMBD brings awareness to the threats migratory birds face, as well as the birds’ ecological importance and the need for bird conservation.

Sandhill crane, Patti Truesdell

While all aspects of bird conservation are important, this year the organizations behind WMBD are focusing on fighting light pollution and harm it can cause to migratory birds.

Light pollution, or the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light, affects our world in numerous ways, from limiting our view of the night sky to disrupting human sleep patterns. However, light pollution’s most devastating impacts are felt by wildlife — and migratory birds are no exception.

Most birds migrate at night due to the calm skies and lack of predators. These birds use the moon and stars to guide their way — a system that has worked for eons. However, with light pollution encroaching further and further along the night sky (at a rate of increase of at least 2 percent per year, according to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Institute), migratory birds’ journeys are becoming increasingly dangerous. Read our recent blog post to learn more about light pollution and how to mitigate its effects on local wildlife.

When artificial lights from nearby cities enter the night sky, migrating birds can become distracted and veer off course into threatening territory. When distracted by light pollution, birds become more likely to land in dangerous areas, where they are prone to collisions and vulnerable to unfamiliar predators.

One of the biggest dangers presented to birds drawn into urban areas impacted by light pollution is needlessly illuminated office buildings. According to the International Dark Sky Association, millions of birds in the United States die each year by colliding with empty office buildings and towers that are lit up at night. Additionally, light pollution impacts migration patterns, confusing and disrupting mating and feeding schedules.

Canada geese returning to summer in Michigan.

All of this information paints a bleak portrait for the future of the feathered fowl who migrate across the U.S., but don’t lose hope! There are things each and every one of us can do to help local birds travel safely.

• First, turn off your lights at night. Unused lights, particular in unused office buildings, present a great danger to traveling fowl.

• Second, make the switch to shielded outdoor lighting. Outdoor lighting should be shielded and directed downward, where it can illuminate the ground rather than contaminate the night sky.

• Third, research and follow bird-safe habits that help reduce the hazards birds face during the migration process. In addition to turning lights off at night, these practices can include installing screens, decorative window film or window art to help prevent birds from hitting glass; moving feeders as close to windows as possible and bleaching bird feeders once a month; and practicing green gardening by growing native plants and avoiding insecticides.

Window decals can be added to increase visibility and reduce bird-strike.

The DZS has long been a supporter and practitioner of bird-safe initiatives. In 2017, we made it official by partnering with the Metro Detroit Nature Network, now known as SEMI Wild, which signed the Urban Conservation Treaty for Migratory Birds, designating Metro Detroit an Urban Bird Treaty area. Among other things, the treaty promotes bird conservation through Lights Out programs. Now, five years later, we are proud to promote these Lights Out programs, which encourage organizations and individuals to turn off or reduce interior and exterior lights during spring and fall migration, in honor of WMBD.

While there is much to be done to provide our feathered friends with safe travels this migration season, know that you can play a part by turning off one light at a time.

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

March of the Penguins: Polar Plunging Into Penguin Welfare

This month, the Detroit Zoological Society is bringing you not one, but three blog posts centered around our favorite flippered friends — the penguins who live at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center (read the first and second entry). The facility, which had been closed since 2019 due to waterproofing issues, reopened in February, and we can’t wait to share with you all the stories we have been saving over the past two and a half years.

In our final March of the Penguins entry, learn how animal care staff ensured the flock was thriving while its home was being repaired.

It has been a while since the public has been able to visit the penguins who call the Detroit Zoo home. You might have been wondering – what were the penguins doing during that time? In order to answer that question, staff and dedicated volunteers from the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE) spent nearly every day monitoring the penguins for the last two and half years.

Megan Jones, a research associate for CZAAWE, collects data in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

While repairs were being made to the Polk Penguin Conservation Center (PPCC), the penguins returned to their previous habitat, the Penguinarium. Animal care staff went above and beyond to make their extended stay in the Penguinarium more comfortable, including bringing snow into the habitat and even letting the penguins walk around Zoo grounds. The penguins’ move provided us with an interesting opportunity to monitor their transition between habitats and compare how they used their previous space compared to their new home in the PPCC.

The PPCC was designed to give the penguins more opportunities to express natural behaviors. It contains a 326,000-gallon pool, which holds 10 times more water than their previous habitat and is equipped with an adjustable wave machine for the penguins to enjoy. Additional improvements were made while the building was closed for repairs, including adding second snow machine within the habitat, more nesting areas and enhanced lighting.

One of the important roles CZAAWE plays at the Detroit Zoo is monitoring how major habitat modifications impact an animal’s welfare. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums defines animal welfare as an animal’s physical, mental and emotional state over a period of time, which is measured on a continuum from good to poor. Since we can’t ask the penguins what they think about all of the new features, we have to rely on decoding their behavior. CZAAWE staff and volunteers have conducted more than 5,000 observations in order to understand how the new habitat impacts the penguins’ welfare. During every observation, CZAAWE staff and volunteers record several indicators of welfare, including the penguins’ behavior, their location within the habitat and the features of the habitat they are using. Our hope was to see the penguins use a variety of different features and locations within the habitat in addition to engaging in the same natural behaviors as their wild counterparts.

Some penguins explore the grounds while the Zoo is closed. Photo credit: Lauren Brown

We found preliminary results varied between each species. For example, the 25-foot-deep pool in the PPCC was successful in promoting swimming in king penguins, who swam more than 10 times more in the PPCC than in their previous habitat. The macaronis, rockhoppers and gentoos relished their new nesting sites, spending more time engaging in nest building behavior than they did in the Penguinarium. The gentoo penguins began to utilize the elevated nesting sites, a feature they did not use in their previous habitat. Additionally, the chinstraps had the opportunity to discover one of their favorite features of the new habitat – the underwater bubbles! Although we saw many positive signs from the penguins in their new home, CZAAWE’s monitoring revealed that the penguins continued to thrive during their stay in the Penguinarium. They maintained their use of the pool and engaged in a healthy variety of behaviors, which is often considered a positive indicator of welfare.

Arthur, a king penguin residing in the PPCC, enjoys his habitat. Photo credit: Megan Jones

Our research also revealed some patterns regarding the location of each species within their new habitat. The PPCC is split into two sides to emulate the natural habitats of all five species that live at the Detroit Zoo. The southern rockhopper and macaroni penguins, typically found on rocky sub-Antarctic islands, are most likely to be found on the South American side of the habitat when you first walk into the building. The king penguins can be found near the snow piles on the Antarctica side of the habitat, while the gentoos tend to use all parts of the habitat. Our newest residents, the chinstrap penguins, are most likely to be found in the water. Most of the species gravitate toward areas of the habitat that are most similar to their natural habitats!With a new habitat comes new opportunities for both penguins and Detroit Zoo guests! What was once a rare opportunity to see king penguins immersed in the water is now a normal sight at the Penguin Center, and the large viewing windows now make it possible to get nose-to-beak with some of your favorite birds. We are thrilled to welcome you back to enjoy some of the positive benefits that major habitat modifications have had on the penguins at the Detroit Zoo.

Tommy, a gentoo penguin, is observed by researchers. Photo credit: Megan Jones

Megan Jones is a research associate for the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics.

March of the Penguins: A Tough Egg to Crack

This month, the Detroit Zoological Society is bringing you not one, but three blog posts centered around our favorite flippered friends — the penguins who live at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. (read the first blog post, here) The facility, which had been closed since 2019 due to waterproofing issues, reopened in February, and we can’t wait to share with you all the stories we have been saving over the past two and a half years. 

Next in our March of the Penguins series, learn how animal care staff saved the life of a hatching macaroni penguin.

We’ve all heard stories from friends and family of difficult birthing events, sometimes resulting from a baby that is positioned incorrectly in the birth canal, often called a breech delivery. You may not realize that something similar can happen during the hatching of a bird. 

Fertilized eggs contain all of the nutrients needed to support a chick during development. As the chick grows, an air pocket forms at one end of the egg. For a chick to survive, it must be positioned so that it can push its beak into this air pocket just before it’s time to begin hatching. Some developing chicks are rotated or positioned incorrectly so that they can’t reach this air pocket – this means that the chick can only survive if given assistance. Over the years, bird and veterinary staffs have worked together to assist the hatching of several developing eggs.

Looking inside of a penguin egg.

The bird staff monitors eggs under development very meticulously. They take daily weights to ensure eggs steadily lose weight, a sign that the air pocket, (otherwise known as an air cell) is growing larger.  The staff also shines a special bright light through the eggs, a procedure called candling. Candling allows you to see an outline of the developing chick and air cell. Once incubation nears the end, radiographs can also be taken to visualize the skeleton of the chick and ensure the embryo is positioned normally.

In 2021, the Detroit Zoo had a single fertile macaroni penguin egg. On day 37 of a 37-day incubation period, radiographs were taken to see if the chick was able to hatch normally. The radiographs showed the chick was malpositioned in a way that can be fatal — the chick was rotated, and the beak would not be able to reach the air cell. We could feel the chick moving, and it seemed strong. After discussing our findings, we decided to begin the process of assisting the chick to hatch. 

Dr. Ann Duncan helping the chick hatch.

The shell was cleaned gently, and a Dremel tool was used to make a small opening. A sterile tool was then used to gradually make the opening larger until the position of the chick’s beak could be confirmed.  We then made a very small hole in the membrane overlying the chick’s beak. This allowed the chick to begin breathing air, so that it can stay strong and continue hatching. Chick embryos develop with the yolk sac outside of their abdomen, and as they near hatching, the yolk sac is gradually enveloped inside of the belly to provide nutrients for the first few days. Through the opening in the shell, we could see that the chick needed more time to absorb the yolk sac. We set the chick up in a warm, humid environment, and checked on it frequently. We also began offering one or two drops of water every few hours. 

She has arrived!

The next morning, we were very happy to see that the yolk sac had been mostly absorbed. We removed more of the shell to expose the belly, cleaned the skin over the belly and placed a suture to hold things in place. We then gently coaxed the chick out of the shell. In all, the hatching process took about 24 hours, which mimics the timeline of normal hatching. The macaroni chick is doing well, and is currently learning to swim in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. She was named Betty and as you can see is full of character. We are very happy to have been given the opportunity to get her started on a long, healthy life.   

Betty in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Fundraising Gala Highlights New Habitats that Promote Great Animal Welfare

Whenever we design and construct a new animal habitat, our focus is on ensuring it is expansive, naturalistic and meets the animals’ specific needs. These spaces should provide the animals with opportunities to do the things that are important to them – be it climbing trees, swimming, wallowing in the mud, and interacting with social partners (or avoiding social partners if that’s what they want at any given time).

Attendees of the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) annual fundraising gala, Sunset at the Zoo, on Friday, June 7, will have the opportunity to observe two newly renovated and expanded spaces in the Detroit Zoo’s Asian Forest that succeed in doing just that.

A few months ago, red pandas Ash, Ravi and Ta-shi moved into the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest. DZS staff immediately began making observations to determine the effect of the new space on the well-being of the animals. We call this a “post-occupancy evaluation” – in this case, it consisted of behavioral observations on each individual as they explored their home. We spent eight weeks monitoring where they chose to spend their time and how their behavior varied based on a number of different factors, including noise levels and if guests were present in a new way the habitat provides. A 70-foot long canopy walkway extends through the trees of the space, allowing visitors to have a red panda’s-eye view.

 

Through these observations, we learned exactly what we hoped for – the red pandas demonstrated diverse “activity budgets”, which means they engaged in different behaviors throughout the day. We were really pleased to see that Ash and Ravi explored and scent-marked their space, both signs that it is stimulating for them. Ta-shi spent a bit more time inactive than the others, which is not surprising given that she is older.

The red pandas made use of most of their space, but did have some preferences, including spending time high up in the trees. This is a natural tendency for the species, and we were glad to see them use the elevated features. Having visitors present on the bridge did not seem to change their preferred resting locations, although Ash occasionally stayed inside the holding building when the habitat first opened. In order to allow the red pandas to acclimate to their new surroundings, we provided them with the choice to go inside their respective buildings. Enabling animals to choose where to spend their time is an important factor in ensuring positive welfare. This ability to retreat was also helpful when noise levels rose, primarily due to the construction happening at the Devereaux Tiger Forest close by. We were thrilled to see that Ash, Ravi and Ta-shi found their home to be a great place to live, letting us know that all of the planning that went into this habitat expansion was successful.

 

Our next post-occupancy evaluation will focus on the Devereaux Tiger Forest. The tiger forest will significantly increase the amount of space for tigers. Naturalistic features, including caves, trees, elevated areas, a waterfall and pool, have been incorporated in order to promote species-appropriate behaviors. We look forward to assessing how the new habitat impacts the well-being of the tigers when the habitat opens this summer.

This year’s Sunset at the Zoo celebrates the Asian Forest, which includes both the tigers’ and red pandas’ new digs. On the evening of Friday, June 7, guests will have the opportunity to explore the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest and take a sneak peek at the new Devereaux Tiger Forest. Just as the red panda habitat includes an exciting new experience for guests with the canopy walkway, the tiger habitat has a thrilling element of its own. In addition to expansive acrylic viewing windows, an SUV will be positioned half in the habitat and half out, allowing visitors to sit in the driver’s seat – and a tiger might just lounge on the hood.

Proceeds for Sunset at the Zoo benefit the Detroit Zoological Society’s mission of Celebrating and Saving Wildlife.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics.

Sustainability is All in a Day’s Work

We all want that work/life balance, but when it comes to being green, let’s let the scale fall to the wayside. Incorporating sustainable practices into your daily life doesn’t just have to be at home – you can take these behaviors with you to the office. There are many ways to be green while on the job; here are some tips on how to reduce waste and use less energy from 9 to 5:

Green machines. Think of all the buzzing and beeping around you. It takes a lot of energy to power machines such as computers, printers and phones. Like you, computers need rest too – by powering down your devices when you leave for the night, you can save thousands of watts of energy per year. The machines inside the building aren’t the only ones that can go green. Carpooling to work helps reduce the amount of exhaust in the air. Doing so will not only benefit the environment, but it will promote team-building and reduce the amount of money spent on gas.

Paper-less is more. Going digital in the workplace has many benefits, such as saving time, money and space. Having information stored in databases rather than paper files can make it easier to search for that specific document you’re looking for. You will save money on storage space and also save time rummaging for that document you need.  If you do need to print, setting printers to copy double-sided by default will not only reduce your paper use by 50 percent, but it will also save the company money by not having to purchase paper as frequently.

Be bright about the light. Illuminating an entire office building takes a lot of energy and money. If your office uses fluorescent lights, consider replacing them with energy-efficient lights such as LEDs. And when it comes time to leave for the day, make sure to turn off the lights in your area. Motion-sensor lights can cut down the use of power if someone forgets to turn off the lights, so they don’t remain on all night when no one’s there. If you have a window in your office, consider working with just the natural light. During the warm months, instead of running the air conditioner, crack the window to let the fresh air in. Many office buildings have high levels of CO2, which contributes to high stress levels – by cracking the window you can improve air quality, as well as cut the cost of air conditioning.

Ditch the disposables. Styrofoam cups and plates are often used in staff kitchens, along with plastic silverware and other disposable utensils. Styrofoam can take 500 years to break down, and it takes up 25-30 percent of landfills. Throw out the disposables once and for all and replace them with reusable plates, silverware and mugs. You could also request that the powers-that-be invest in a water cooler for the office to fill reusable cups throughout the day instead of buying an endless supply of plastic bottles of water. It may seem expensive at first to buy reusable items, but you will see the cost difference in no time. By eliminating the need to repurchase these disposable items, you – and the company – will save your green by going green.

Energize organically. Many of us need that extra boost from coffee or tea in the morning to get our day started. Try getting that boost from fair trade and organic coffee and tea. Fair trade farms employ strategies for environmental sustainability by protecting the land and wildlife. Some of these farmers use the shade-grown method, which means coffee is grown under a canopy layer of trees, which not only preserves native trees, but also protects habitats for many endangered animals.  If workers prefer to go out for their coffee, suggest they bring a reusable mug – many places offer discounts if you do this. What better way to beat that 3 o’clock feeling than with coffee or tea that also saves you money.

Green Team. Implementing a green team in the workplace is a great way to raise awareness and brainstorm new ways to bring sustainability into the office. Work together to create a recycling program, help educate other staff members or organizational leadership and research information about energy-efficient appliances and green cleaning supplies. The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) Green Team was founded in 2002 to help minimize our ecological footprint and to educate staff and visitors about choices that enable us to live a more Earth-friendly lifestyle. Being a part of our Green Team is voluntary; it is comprised of representatives from every DZS department who share their commitment, expertise and time to make our facilities greener places for staff, visitors, animals and the planet. The Green Team was a strong advocate for the development of our Greenprint goals and objectives and has been instrumental in carrying out these award-winning policies and procedures.

As a team, you can work together to find the best solutions for your office to lessen your impact on the environment. By being more conscientious, we can reduce the amount of waste we produce and energy we use, reuse what we can to keep unnecessary items out of landfills and recycle the items we don’t need the proper way. Doing so will help save wildlife and wild places for generations to come.

Notes from the Field: Treating Endangered African Vultures

This is the second in a series detailing the Detroit Zoological Society’s recent vulture conservation fieldwork in South Africa. For Part I, click here.

The Detroit Zoological Society’s latest field conservation project was with VulPro, an organization in South Africa that works to rehabilitate sick and injured vultures in order to return them to vulnerable wild populations. With seven of the 11 African vulture species currently endangered or critically endangered, the DZS is working with VulPro to reverse the crisis literally one vulture at a time.

Through community outreach efforts, sick vultures come to VulPro from as far as eight hours away. They arrive in all sorts of conditions, sometimes with broken bones or open wounds, signs of poisoning or evidence of electrocution, and they’re often dehydrated and starving.

I traveled to South Africa this winter to assist VulPro in their efforts. During my time there, a farmer discovered a Cape vulture on his land that was weak and unable to fly, and a VulPro volunteer drove several hours to collect the bird and bring him back to us. He was an older adult male who we affectionately called “Old Guy”, and when he arrived, he was too weak to stand or even lift his head. We immediately got to work. A brief assessment revealed that he was severely dehydrated. We secured an identification band, placed an intravenous catheter in a vein in his leg, and examined, cleaned and bandaged a wound on his left wing. The wound – as well as bruising along his elbow – were presumably caused by barbed wire and likely left him temporarily unable to fly.

We then moved Old Guy into an ICU unit – a small space that prevented him from pulling on his fluid line but also allows us to see him at all times – which also happened to be the shower in the VulPro director’s house. VulPro is a small but mighty non-profit, and the team makes creative use of every resource available, even if that means sharing the bathroom with a critical vulture patient. After 15 minutes, Old Guy was still quite lifeless, with a heart rate two times slower than a healthy vulture. We continued to keep a close watch, and after 45 minutes on fluids, he was able to stand on his own. Over the next several hours, Old Guy slowly came back to life. He was given a companion vulture overnight and both were moved to the outdoor hospital enclosures in the morning. Over the next few days, Old Guy improved dramatically and began eating on his own. He even got a bit feisty with us, which is a true sign of a healthy vulture.

Over the past two months, Old Guy has continued to improve, and he will be released later this month at VulPro’s release site in the Magaliesberg mountains.

VulPro also conducts many crucial research and population-level conservation initiatives, but saving individuals like Old Guy – one vulture at a time – is at the core of the mission of both the Detroit Zoological Society and VulPro. This truly exemplifies compassionate conservation.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and operates out of the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Animal Welfare: How do You Know if They’re ‘Happy’?

Think about the term, “animal welfare”, and what it means to you. When you encounter an animal – in any setting, be it a zoo, a friend’s house or even your own living room – are there certain cues that help you decide if you feel the animal is having a good or a bad time – or experiencing positive or negative welfare? It may be the animal’s appearance, behaviors, what the space looks like where they live, or perhaps it’s based on your knowledge about that species.

In some cases, it’s relatively easy to determine that an animal is in a poor welfare state. If they’re living in dirty and cramped conditions, don’t have access to social partners – or perhaps too many – or if they have obvious signs of injuries or illness without any indication they’re under veterinary care, it’s likely the animal is not experiencing good welfare. But when you look at other, less obvious factors, such as if the animal is quietly resting in a spacious habitat, or if the animal is moving back and forth in one area of their space, the answers are less clear.

The concept of animal welfare refers to an animal’s physical, mental and emotional states over a period of time. It is based on the individual’s experience, which can be different from one species to another, and from one animal to another. It is not about what is provided to an animal, such as food and water – this doesn’t automatically ensure good welfare. Although having access to these resources is critical to creating conditions that may lead to good welfare, it is actually how the animal perceives those conditions that determines their welfare. We can’t simply measure welfare in terms of square footage, gallons of water or the nutritional content of food items. We must use indicators from the animals themselves, such as behavior, physical condition and even emotional responses.

These indicators represent the three different concepts of welfare. The first has to do with an animal’s ability to engage in natural behaviors, or live in a way it has evolved to. The second involves biological functioning and prioritizes an animal’s physical health. The last focuses on the animal’s feelings and emotional states, with an emphasis on minimizing negative emotions and promoting positive ones. Should we favor one concept over another, it is possible we would miss something important to an individual animal.

If two people were to assess an animal using two different concepts, they could come to conflicting conclusions about that animal’s welfare state. This is why we incorporate aspects of all three of these concepts when evaluating animal welfare. This allows us to gain a much more holistic picture of the animal’s experience and to consider all of the factors that impact their well-being.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics.

Notes from the Field: Saving Endangered African Vultures

Most people probably don’t consider vultures to be lovable creatures. But I do, which is why I spent a month this winter working with VulPro, an African vulture conservation organization that rescues and rehabilitates sick and injured vultures. I first fell in love with the African vultures who live here at the Detroit Zoo – there are four different species with as many different personalities as there are individual vultures. By caring for these animals, not only did I gain affection and respect for African vultures, but I also gained special skills in the veterinary care of these amazing birds, and I was thrilled when the Detroit Zoological Society gave me the opportunity to use those skills to help directly with the conservation of wild vultures in Africa.

You may wonder why African vultures need saving. Groups of turkey vultures soaring overhead are a common sight here in Michigan. Fortunately, North American vulture species are doing well, but all across the continent of Africa, populations of wild vultures are declining rapidly. There are 11 species of vultures in Africa, and according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, seven of those species are currently endangered or critically endangered.

Vultures play a significant role in the ecosystem health; they are essentially nature’s clean-up crew. By scavenging and cleaning up carcasses, they can prevent the spread of deadly diseases, such as anthrax and botulism, and they have an amazing ability to clean up these diseases without becoming infected themselves. Without vultures around to provide their sanitation services, infected carcasses disappear more slowly and attract more mammalian scavengers, resulting in a huge increase in the potential for disease transmission. Thus, it is hugely problematic that African vulture populations are plummeting and so quickly.

There are numerous threats to wild populations of vultures. In South Africa, power line collisions are one of the biggest threats to vultures. In other places, vultures are subject to poisoning; for instance, poachers will often poison carcasses to prevent circling vultures from alerting rangers to the poached animal’s remains. Sometimes vultures are unintentionally poisoned when a farmer is trying to target a predator, such as a lion, that has been preying on cattle. Vultures can also face long-term health problems from eating carcasses that have bullet fragments in them, causing lead poisoning.

African vulture populations are in serious need of help, and the Detroit Zoological Society is working with VulPro, an African vulture conservation organization based near Pretoria, South Africa, to rehabilitate the sick and injured wild vultures they receive and release them back into the wild. When staff are unable to restore a vulture’s ability to survive in the wild, the bird becomes a resident at VulPro and has the opportunity to nest and breed. The offspring are then released into the wild.

In January, I traveled to South Africa to perform routine health checks for the more than 200 vultures that live at VulPro’s facility. This involved checking their body condition, listening to their heart and lungs, checking wing and leg joints, and looking into their eyes. We also set up a small laboratory for VulPro, where we collected blood to look at red and white blood cell counts, measure blood protein levels, and test for the presence of lead. I also checked fecal samples to look for parasites. Our results showed the overall health of the residents at VulPro is excellent!

This partnership with VulPro is the latest in the Detroit Zoological Society’s comprehensive wildlife conservation programs. We are committed to saving birds around the world.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Detroit Zoological Society Leads Task Force to Evaluate Risks Facing Honduran Amphibians

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently asked the Detroit Zoological Society to host an Amphibian Red List workshop in Honduras. The IUCN Red List is the world’s most comprehensive information source for understanding extinction risk for animals. To develop this list, a rigorous assessment process is conducted using all known data on each species. Based on what threats the animals are facing, e.g., habitat decline, population decline and habitat fragmentation, the animals are placed into one of eight categories:

  • Extinct – None left
  • Extinct in the Wild – None are left in the wild, but captive groups exist
  • Critically Endangered – These species are often labeled “probably extinct” and are in imminent danger of extinction
  • Endangered – These species are at high risk of extinction
  • Vulnerable – These species are at moderate risk of extinction
  • Near Threatened – These species are not currently at risk of extinction but are anticipated to be at risk in the near future
  • Least Concern – These species are not currently at risk of extinction
  • Data Deficient – Not enough information

It’s important to note that animals in the Least Concern category are still of concern and should not be ignored, but the threats facing animals in the other categories are currently causing more pressures. The Red List rating scale is often referred to as a “barometer of life”, with each category indicating the amount of pressure on a species pushing it closer toward extinction.

Hosting a Red Listing workshop for the amphibians in Honduras was an exciting and extremely intense process. Of all the countries in Central America, Honduras has the highest number of amphibians that are endemic – or found only in that country, which makes it a very important area for biodiversity. Unfortunately, Honduras doesn’t receive a lot of conservation attention and many of these amphibians are facing the threat of extinction. The Detroit Zoological Society was eager to help this underappreciated hot spot for biodiversity move forward toward understanding the conservation needs of its unique amphibians.

This IUCN assessment of amphibians was the first assessment of all amphibian species in Honduras for more than 15 years, and since the last assessment, 22 new amphibian species were discovered in the country. To assess the animals, the local Honduran amphibian experts were brought together at Universidad Zamarano outside Tegucigulpa for the workshop. With the help of myself, the IUCN facilitators, and two other amphibian experts from the U.S., we all sat down to share data on the 151 species of amphibians in Honduras and determine their IUCN categories. Holding this assessment in country was critical for the participation of these local experts who had intimate knowledge of the species, and who were able to discuss future steps in protecting species of critical need.

We learned a lot through this workshop. Although there were more species assessed in 2019 than in 2002, the overall number of species that are Extinct, Critically Endangered and Endangered all increased. This is especially concerning in this unique area of biodiversity. Because the Red List allows us to assess the specific threats facing the animals, we were able to discuss potential conservation actions needed. At the end of the workshop, a meeting was held with officials from Instituto de Conservaticion Forestal, the governmental institution similar to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in order to discuss the results of the assessments and what steps could be taken next. Additionally, we hosted a symposium at the Universidad Nacional Automona de Honduras in Tegucigalpa in order to raise awareness about the IUCN workshop and the state of amphibians in the country. More than 150 individuals attended the symposium, including government officials, researchers and students. It was encouraging to see the excitement within the country, especially in so many young students, for the preservation of amphibians. We will continue to evaluate what we’ve learned from this process and determine the next course of action to save these critical species.

– Dr. Ruth Marcec-Greaves is the director of the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.

Preparing the Next Generation of Wildlife Protectors

As a leader in conservation work across six continents, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is saving animals from extinction. Dedicated DZS professionals work year-round to support this important work, fueled by a passion to protect and preserve wildlife and wild places for future generations. Our animal care staff have an obvious role in this important work, but every staff member has a meaningful part.

Each year, close to 20,000 students and teachers participate in programs and experiences designed to inspire the next generation of wildlife protectors. The learning experiences engage participants with hands-on activities as they build essential process skills and meet classroom curriculum requirements while encouraging them to join us in our mission of Celebrating and Saving Wildlife. A great example of this type of programming is our Conservation Project Learning Labs, which includes programs designed for school groups that feature DZS conservation work. The Conservation Project: Panamanian Golden Frog Learning Lab for upper elementary and middle school students is one of the most requested school programs we offer.

When the students arrive for this program, staff greet them by welcoming them to “Panama”. A brief introduction covers what a Species Survival Plan is and how the DZS works with other zoos and aquariums across the country to ensure the survival of selected species, many of which are threatened or endangered. Panamanian golden frogs have not been found in the wild in more than 10 years, making the populations being raised in zoos and aquariums a lifeline for the species to exist. The students have important work to do during their visit: They’re responsible for determining the best site in Panama to release Panamanian golden frogs into their native habitat.

The students rotate through a series of stations to emulate how professional wildlife ecologists work in the field. Simulated habitats planted in large containers allow students to test water quality from a running stream, check for signs of human activity in the area, and swab plants and rocks in the model to check for diseases that would impact the frogs’ health. The students collect and record data at each potential release site, then move on to “assess the health” of rubber frogs by weighing and measuring each one as animal care staff would. At the final station, the students decide which of the three sites frogs should be released at based on the data they collected.

Programs that allow participants to see themselves as scientists and practice skills through realistic, hands-on activities create experiences to remember. The students walk away empowered and inspired to become future wildlife advocates. To review a complete list of programs available for school groups, visit https://detroitzoo.org/education/teachers-and-schools/learning-labs/.

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