Bird keepers at Edinburgh Zoo were hoping their hard work would pay off and their rare pair of Darwin's rheas would produce a chick this year. Little did they expect or dream that they would be faced with the delightful dilemma of having NINE of the supersized and increasingly threatened South American birds!
A massive coup for animal conservation charity the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who own and manage Edinburgh Zoo, Darwin's rhea chicks have only been born and successfully raised in a very small number of zoos in the UK and certainly never thrived in such large numbers. The animal experts believe their amazing success has been down to, amongst other things, a special outdoor exercise routine and a varied diet of fresh weeds from across the Zoo's grounds.
Nick Dowling, Senior Bird Keeper at Edinburgh Zoo, said:
"Our Darwin's rhea pair, Evita and Ramon, are in their first breeding season together here at Edinburgh Zoo and we were hopeful we might successfully help them to hatch and rear their first chick this year. It was beyond our wildest expectations that we would end up with so many - an incredible total of nine.
"The chicks have all been artificially incubated as the keepers were concerned about wild birds damaging the precious eggs when Ramon left the nest to feed; in the wild, it is the male of this species sits on the eggs to incubate them. As soon as the eggs started to hatch in our incubator, we transferred them into a machine called a brooder for a couple of hours and then into a specially made pen with heat lamps. Some of the chicks even needed help to kick their way out of their eggs.
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"Feeding these nine large birds has been a big, but enjoyable challenge. To stimulate feeding in the new hatchlings, we encouraged them to peck at food with a "puppet" rhea parent made up from old rhea feathers, a photo of an adult's head and an old sock to cover our hands! Thankfully they got the idea after a few hours. They eat a specially made type of pellet for young ostriches, grated carrot and plenty of greens. We also spend a lot of time picking wild garlic, mustard, dandelions and different grasses from around the Zoo grounds and believe the addition of these fresh weeds has made a real difference to their diet.
"We believe our other key success has been their exercise routine. From only a couple of days old, we built special little pens in an sunny off show area of the Zoo and let the chicks run riot in there. Watched over closely by RZSS volunteers, the chicks got at least four hours of exercise per day and plenty of vitamin D from the good weather we have been having. This exercise mirrors what would happen in the wild as from a very young age the birds have to chase after their parents as they forage for food. Believe it or not the exercise actually helps to keep the birds regular, which can be a real problem for Darwin's rhea young.
"The birds are balls of energy and run around non-stop and they are also eating machines, but we are not complaining as it is an amazing and unexpected problem to have. We are delighted and extremely proud that Edinburgh Zoo has succeeded in hatching and rearing such a difficult and increasingly threatened species."
Rhea chicks incubate for 35 days and out of the nine chicks, the oldest pair are two months old and weigh around five kilos, three chicks are around a month old and the final four are just over a week old. The chicks have yet to be sexed, but a vet will take a tiny blood sample to analyse for DNA. Once they have been sexed the chicks will get their names.
Visitors to the Zoo can see the two month old chicks in front of the monkey enclosure, next to giant pandas and the pudus. Eventually all nine chicks will live where their parents currently are, near to the member's gate and face painting hut.
Darwin's rhea first arrived at Edinburgh Zoo in 2007, but this current pair, Evita and Ramon, both hatched in French zoos in 2011, and were first paired here at Edinburgh in mid-2013. A few years ago keepers at Edinburgh Zoo managed to hatch chicks from a previous Darwin's rhea couple, however the chicks did not survive long.
In the wild the species is found in South America, ranging from the Pantanal down to Argentina and is classified by the IUCN as Near Threatened. The two northern sub-species are thought to number only several hundred birds and proposed conservation measures include raising awareness of their decline and limiting the effect of hunting and egg collecting of wild birds. A large flightless bird, adults can stand up to 100cm (39 inches) tall and can weigh up to 28 kilos (63 pounds). The birds can actually reach speeds of up to 60km (37mph). The species is named after Charles Darwin who came across one of the birds during the second voyage of HMS Beagle in 1833; his party shot and started to eat one of the birds before Darwin realised it was a new species.
Notes to editors
A range of photographs of the chicks will be available before 11am
A YouTube video of an interview with bird keeper Nick Dowling, with the rheas in the background, will also be available shortly.
About Edinburgh Zoo and RZSS:
Edinburgh Zoo is set in 82 acres of sloping parkland just a stone's throw away from Edinburgh's bustling city centre. In its 101 year history the Zoo has been home to many famous animal residents, more recently the UK's only koalas, Yabbra and Goonaroo as well as the UK's only giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang.
Edinburgh Zoo is owned by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, a registered charity, charity no SC004064. For further information on all our conservation projects and events, please visit our website - www.edinburghzoo.org.uk
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) is a registered charity, charity no SC004064. RZSS was founded by visionary lawyer Thomas Gillespie. The Society was set up in 1909 'to promote, facilitate and encourage the study of zoology and kindred subjects and to foster and develop amongst the people an interest in and knowledge of animal life'.
Edinburgh Zoo is a member of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA). BIAZA represents its member collections and promotes the values of good zoos and aquariums. For further information please telephone 020 7449 6351.