Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center
Founded in 1991, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) focuses on the ecology, evolution and conservation of migratory birds. The SMBC studies annual migratory movements, collects long-term data on migratory birds from North to South America, works with bird-friendly coffee farmers in Nicaragua, and bridges classrooms across the Americas. The SMBC is dedicated to understanding, conserving and championing the grand phenomenon of bird migration.
Stanley Crane Hormone Monitoring
Two-year-old Stanley crane Alice seems to enjoy participating in daily demonstrations with keepers and Zoo visitors. But how does she really feel about these interactions? To get inside Alice's head, Bird House curator Sara Hallager and keeper Debi Talbott teamed up with Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute endocrinologist Janine Brown to study her hormones. Learn how they solved the mystery in this science Q & A.
Black-Crowned Night Heron Migration
Every spring and summer the National Zoo's Bird House hosts some very special migratory guests—about 100 pairs of black-crowned night-herons. For the past century, the birds arrive at the Bird House—their only rookery in Washington D.C. For the past century, the birds arrive in March or April each year and depart between August and September, but scientists did not know where their southern destinations were or what challenges they faced to reach them. In 2013, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center scientists attached tracking devices to four birds, gaining the first glimpse into the birds' migration south. A couple of birds made it to Florida before the transmitter batteries died. In July 2014, scientists outfitted six birds with more advanced tracking devices, thanks to support from the Smithsonian Women's Committee. The light-weight, solar-powered trackers use cell phone technology to transmit location data every two hours. This more precise system allowed scientists to track the birds in near real-time and gather clues about what challenges they face on their marathon journeys.
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. The Zoo’s research with kori bustards focuses on behavior and reproduction with the goal of advancing the understanding of kori bustard biology and making recommendations to improve its survival, both in the wild and in human care. Since 1970, kori bustard ranges have shrunk more than 20 percent in East Africa and close to 10 percent in southern Africa. Zoo scientists are studying the behavior and reproduction of adults, sub-adults and chicks; specifically, they are examining breeding displays, hormone patterns and copulation. Zoo 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.
The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute houses loggerhead shrikes. This species was once common across North America. Their populations have fallen sharply (down 70 percent), and they have disappeared from New England completely. There may be as few as 100 birds remaining in Virginia, a state where they were once abundant. They are listed as endangered in Canada and in 26 states, and they may soon be added to the Endangered Species List. The reason for their decline is poorly understood, but SCBI scientists are working with wildlife biologists in Virginia and West Virginia to investigate possible causes. SCBI-hatched shrikes are released into the wild, helping to bolster native populations. Information learned from breeding and studying these species will contribute to a better understanding of population declines and help conserve this threatened local species.
Micronesian kingfishers are the most endangered species in the Zoo’s and SCBI’s collection— the total population currently stands at about 131 birds. Extinct in the wild, Micronesian kingfishers flourished in Guam's limestone forests and coconut plantations until the arrival of the brown tree snake, an invasive species that stowed away in military equipment shipped from New Guinea after World War II. Within three decades, they hunted Micronesian kingfishers and eight other bird species to the brink of extinction. In 1984, Guam's Department of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources captured the country's remaining 29 Micronesian kingfishers and sent them to zoological institutions around the globe—including the Smithsonian's National Zoo—as a hedge against extinction. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums created a Species Survival Plan for the birds. The SSP pairs males and females in order to maintain a genetically diverse and self-sustaining population. This species is extremely difficult to breed due to incompatibility between males and females and the inability of some parents to successfully raise their own chicks. SCBI animal care staff often hand-raise chicks, which involves feeding them at two-hour intervals, seven to eight times per day.
The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute houses white-naped cranes. These are large birds that typically stand 4 feet high. They are mostly dark-grey with a white hind neck. Destruction of its native wetland habitat in northeast China has dramatically decreased white-naped crane populations in the wild to an estimated 5,000. SCBI bird staff specialize in producing offspring from cranes with behavioral or physical impediments to natural breeding. When natural mating is not possible, staff perform artificial inseminations on the cranes.
In 2009, the white-naped crane Species Survival Plan (SSP) contained more than enough male cranes and greatly needed female offspring to prevent the population from stagnating. SCBI staff developed a technique for determining the sex of a chick before it hatched; they are able to penetrate the eggshell and extract blood without killing the embryo or introducing microorganisms that would later kill the embryo. SCBI’s science and conservation efforts have directly increased the genetic viability of the white-naped crane captive population by capturing genes that otherwise would have been lost forever. Due to the expertise of SCBI’s staff to preselect the gender of the chicks, the sex ratio in the population is no longer skewed.