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November 10, 2008

Zoo Tales – rare bird species

One of the most important objectives of the N.C. Zoo is to maintain viable populations of exotic animals for its own collections and for the collections of other zoos around the country.

The zoo has been especially successful in the keeping and breeding of rare and exotic birds and, over the years, has been responsible for a number of the most significant bird hatchings in American zoos.

The latest example is the red-faced liocichla (pronounced leo-SIC-la). This species, native to China and Southeast Asia, is abundant in the wild, but there are only nine known adults in captivity in America.

Of those nine, seven are now housed at the N.C. Zoo. The zoo has been working with the species since the mid-to-late 1980s and this year, had four hatches, of which two have survived.

“A couple of years ago, we went looking around for some mates for some of our (liocichlas) and realized that there was only the small number left,” said Ken Reininger, curator of birds at the N.C. Zoo. “We made a concerted effort to gather up as many as we could to breed them, and it has not been easy.”

Liocichlas, like some of the zoo’s other rare species, are considered passerines, an order that includes more than half of all bird species. Sometimes known as perching birds or, less accurately, as songbirds, the passerines form one of the most diverse terrestrial vertebrate orders – with about 5,093 species. Although the number of species in captivity is small, their management is far from easy.

“It does take a concerted effort by all zoos pulling together to monitor what is going on – to track things like genetics and the sex ratios and the age structures of these populations,” Reininger said.

Another of the zoo’s rare passerines is the golden-head manakin, thought to be housed by only two or three other zoos. Only one has been successfully raised in captivity.

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