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Bird Science

The National Zoo Bird House studies several important bird species including the endangered brown kiwi, the declining kori bustard and greater rhea, and the critically endangered blue-billed curassow.

Our research includes a wide range of fields, but many studies focus on ethology, the study of animal behavior. The data we collect helps improve husbandry and management and helps breeding programs at National Zoo and other zoos. The knowledge we gain through research can also help the conservation of wild populations.

Research studies focusing on the biology of endangered species (including kiwi and curassow) enhance the potential for the species’ survival. Research programs aimed at less threatened species (such as the kori bustard and greater rhea) are increasingly important as wild populations continue to decline and become less common.

Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) volunteers assist the Bird House staff with our behavioral studies. These dedicated volunteers tirelessly collect data in all kinds of weather, over holidays, early mornings, and late evenings. Their efforts provide the means by which behavioral research at the Bird House can occur.

Both the kiwi and kori bustard behavior studies are complimented by the dedication of other departments within the National Zoo including: veterinarians, nutritionists and scientists with the support of senior management and offices of education, communications, development, and exhibits. At the National Zoo, we work as a team to better understand these and other species.

Current Behavior research programs at the bird House include:

blue-billed curassowBlue-billed curassow (Crax alberti)

The blue-billed curassow is a medium-sized South American bird that faces serious threats from habitat loss; it lives only in Colombia. Our research focuses on reproduction and behavior. The main goal is to better understand how this bird breeds in order to improve efforts among captive birds.. This research is vital to managing captive blue-billed curassow and preserving this critically endangered species in the wild.

brown kiwiBrown Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli)

The brown kiwi is a small flightless bird native to New Zealand. It is New Zealand’s national bird and lives in forest, scrub, and overgrown farmland. Females produce one of the largest eggs known among birds; the egg is about 15 percent of the female’s body weight! Following an incubation period of 60 to 80 days (only the male incubates the eggs) the fully feathered chick hatches and within one week is fully independent.

The Nationals Zoo’s kiwi research focuses on behavior and reproduction. We study chicks’ behavior during their first year of life. This research will help improve enclosures in zoos and better care for both chicks and adults. Secondly, we are trying to better understand kiwi reproductive biology by studying seasonal hormone levels of males and their correlation with sperm vitality. These studies will help better manage this endangered species and improve genetic diversity in captive populations.

greater rhea chicksGreater Rhea (Rhea americana)

The greater rhea is the largest flightless bird native to South America and a relative of Africa’s ostrich and Australia’s emu and cassowary. It inhabits grassy plains and open brush of eastern South America. Unlike many bird species, the male rhea rears the young. At the Zoo, our rhea research focuses on behavior, primarily of adults, nesting males, and chicks. We are also studying social interactions between chicks and adults, and how these interactions vary with the seasons, the time of day, as well as examining the effect of visitors on  behavior. This type of research helps to improve the management of this near-threatened species and improve their care in zoos.

kori bustard chickKori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)

The kori bustard is a large terrestrial bird native to southern and eastern Africa. Kori bustards are the largest species of the bustard family and the heaviest flying bird. Throughout their range, kori bustard populations are declining. Since the late 1800s, kori bustard ranges have shrunk more than 20 percent in East Africa and close to 10 percent in southern Africa. Population sizes are reduced in most regions where this kori bustards live. Scientists aren’t sure what’s causing the kori bustard decline, but they’re probably a result of many factors rather than just one. Decreasing habitat quality and declining resource availability may further exacerbate the effect of natural stressors, such as predation or competition, have on resident kori bustards. As human populations expand and loss of habitat continues, the kori bustard population may decline further. The steady decrease in kori bustard numbers in the wild suggests the need for successful captive management of this species to advance the current understanding of these birds and make recommendations to improve its survival.

At the Zoo, our kori bustard research focuses on behavior and reproduction. Our scientists seek to understand kori bustard actions and responses during certain times of the day and seasons, and how their activities vary between the sexes. They also study how the birds interact with and react to Zoo visitors. Kori bustard breeding biology is poorly understood. Our reproduction research examines breeding displays (including some that are new to science), hormone patterns, and copulation. Behavior and reproduction studies, including adults, sub-adults, and chicks, improve husbandry and the management of this unique bird in humane care and in the wild.