Feathered Tales: Finding a Partner

Welcome back to Feathered Tales, the blog series where we follow along with the day-to-day lives of our bird friends here at Brookfield Zoo. Last month, we saw how birds are moved into new neighborhoods as they’re carefully introduced into new habitats. Birds move around for any number of reasons, but this month we’ll be discussing one of the most important reasons for an introduction: finding a partner.

This time of year is exceptionally exciting for many birds as it’s when many are looking to buddy up with a member of the same species. Birds that are uncoupled are usually on the lookout for that very special partner for the breeding season, and the Animal Care Specialists at Brookfield Zoo try coupling as many as possible. This is done for the health and well-being of the bird but also helps with efficiently using space. If two birds can share a place together, then another home opens up for more friends to move into the neighborhood.

It is a thrilling (and sometimes, noisy) experience to see birds courting. One particularly loud example currently resides at the Reptiles & Birds building here at the zoo. Our resident male Andean cock-of-the-rock is a brilliant red-orange species native to the forests of the Andes Mountains in South America.

When it’s breeding season, this bird is loud both in bright color and in volume. His courting call this time of year largely resembles a car alarm, echoing everywhere in the building as he tries to impress his prospective partner. The not-so-lovely singing also comes with a dancing display, as the cock-of-the-rock flaps his wings and bobs about, trying as hard as he can to show he’s a worthy partner. In the wild, these displays are not solo ventures; visitors to the Andes might stumble upon a lek, a great group ‘dance-off’ of dozens of male cocks-of-the-rock all attempting to win the affections of nearby females.

As many species will stay together year after year, there is a great amount of importance in the initial meeting. Just like people, sometimes bird pairs find that they have clashing personalities. Animal care specialists monitor potential pairings closely, paying especially close attention to the birds’ body language to ensure all is well. Albert and Meghan are a pair of Victoria crowned pigeons that reside in Feathers & Scales here at Brookfield Zoo. Victoria crowned pigeons are the world’s largest pigeon species, standing between two and three feet from head to tail. The beautiful feathered ‘crown’ on their heads makes them look a bit more like a peacock than a pigeon, though both males and females rock the unique look.

The two pigeons, both three years old, are still figuring out a lot as a couple. They were introduced to one another a year and a half ago but had a slow start to their relationship. When beginning to court for the season, Albert will put his head down and make a deep booming noise. Meghan was, at least initially, hesitant of Albert’s forwardness, and keepers would sometimes find Albert trying to herd her with his wings towards their nesting area in an attempt to get her to sit. Recently, however, the pair are more comfortable and Meghan has comfortably taken to sitting on a nest when the time comes.

Brookfield Zoo takes part in cooperative breeding programs for many of its species. While wanting to be sure that as many birds can find a partner as possible, Care Specialists also work with zoos across the country in making sure that a healthy domestic population is kept. Sometimes, eager parents can overdo it, and Care Staff monitors these situations to avoid having too many zoo animals that are related. Animals that are underrepresented, either by having few family members or having wild relatives acquired through customs acquisitions, are usually given special attention for pairing.

The pairing of our Humboldt penguin population at Brookfield Zoo is one that is often done with great care with cooperative breeding in mind. Divot is a handsome young male living in Rocky Shores inside the Living Coast. He has very few biological relatives in the collective zoo populations and is considered a high-priority bird when it comes to finding him a partner for breeding. Years ago, when Divot was a bit too shy to find himself a partner, staff stepped in to help him out.

In 2013, Divot and a single female named Rosie were put into an ‘arranged’ partnership. This is done by giving the pair a ‘honeymoon suite’, where the birds are given some privacy away from the other penguins that they share a space with. They have their own pool, are fed as much as they would like, and ultimately are given time to grow comfortable with one another. After about a month, the pair of burgeoning partners are returned to the rest of the flock. Sometimes these pairings do not stick (love can be a fickle thing, after all), but in Divot and Rosie’s case, they have been together without issue for eight years now.

Now that we’re moved in together and getting comfortable, it’s important to make sure our birds’ homes are well-suited for everybody in the neighborhood. Next month, we’ll be talking about how birds enjoy having their homes furnished, and how important the right set-up can be within a habitat. Until next time!

- Written by Alex Kirkeeng, Animal Care Specialist, Bird Department

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Posted: 7/13/2021 11:50:10 AM by Sean Keeley

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Since the opening of Brookfield Zoo in 1934, the Chicago Zoological Society has had an international reputation for taking a cutting-edge role in animal care and conservation of the natural world. Learn more about the animals, people, and research that make up CZS here at our blog.


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