Many zookeepers at the Milwaukee County Zoo travel to other states and other countries to study and help animals in their native habitats. The Zoological Society and the Zoo help fund some of these conservation efforts. Here are the stories of three zookeepers who are making a difference.
Photo by Richard Brodzeller
Helping Hatch Chicks
Heather Neldner has worked with birds for years, but she had never helped a newborn chick make its way out of an egg. Never, that is, until Neldner took part in a Michigan-based project that rehabilitates abandoned piping plover eggs and chicks. Piping plovers are small shorebirds that are native to the Great Lakes, Great Plains and Atlantic Coast areas. The Great Lakes population is endangered because the birds’ nesting habitats are being destroyed by vehicles, hikers and beach development. Predators such as crows, ravens, domestic cats and dogs eat chicks and eggs. The project is called the Great Lakes Piping Plover Rescue and Recovery Program. Zoo staff from across the country help biologists rescue abandoned eggs and artificially incubate and hatch the eggs. Chicks are reared on site and eventually released into the
H e a t h e r N e l d n e r s t a n d s a t t h e M i l w a u k e e C o u n t y Z o o ’ Shoreline Exhibit. s
wild. The Milwaukee County Zoo has been involved with the project since 1996, and the Zoological Society has supported the project for years by donating funds.
Piping plovers play an important part in the ecosystem because they are a “barometer species,” says Neldner. “Birds can alert scientists that some- thing in the environment is not quite right. If a
Photos provided by Heather Neldner
common bird suddenly stops visiting an area, scientists know that there might be a problem.” These birds are also an “umbrella species,” which means that when we protect piping plovers and their homes, we are also protecting all the other plants and animals that depend on the beaches. Above: Neldner uses tweezers to help a chick hatch over 12 hours. Left: Neldner holds a 4-day-old plover chick next to a warming unit that holds a 1-day-old chick. For the last two summers, Neldner, a zookeeper in the Herb & Nada Mahler Family Aviary, has traveled to the project site in Pellston, Mich. Last summer, she learned how to help hatch abandoned eggs. This is a tricky procedure that requires tools such as surgical tweezers. “When the chick breaks through the air cell and starts to pip, we give them about 24 hours. If they have not made any progress after 24 hours, we help them,” she says. “We work on the egg only for a few minutes (so as not to stress out the chick), then come back in an hour, and if the chick needs more help, we work a little more. If you open up an egg too quickly, you can rupture blood vessels that need to dry out and can cause the chick to die from blood loss and/or stress. I learned a lot that will help me here at the Zoo.”
When a bird is ready to go into the wild, biologists place a series of color-coded bands on the bird’s legs. A metal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service band has a number on it that is individual to the bird. Other colored bands indicate where a bird was raised, reared and released. In 2005, the project staff released 15 piping plovers; last summer, they released 30 birds. Great Lakes piping plovers then migrate to the Gulf Coast and Florida, where they spend the winter. They return to Michigan in the spring to nest. One of the birds that Neldner raised in 2005 came back to Michigan in 2006; it was spotted by field biologists with binoculars. Says Neldner: “It’s really exciting when one of the birds you helped raise comes back after successfully migrating.”