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Protecting Birds Around the World: How Philadelphia Zoo Supports Bird Conservation in the Marianas Islands

How does the loss of a small bird species make an impact on an ecosystem?

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At first, the impact may not look like much, but long term, the consequences become very serious. Without these animals to carry seeds and pollen, forests and other plants cannot grow and thrive. That, in turn, diminishes forests and reduces habitats for other species that call these ecosystems home.

This is what happened on Guam and scientists are hoping to prevent it in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI) and surrounding areas. After WWII, the brown tree snake was accidentally introduced to Guam and other islands. Scientists believe it snuck onto cargo ships and then slithered on to non-native habitats. Not knowing to fear these predators, birds like the Guam kingfisher (sihek) diminished rapidly and are now considered to be extinct in the wild. This species can only be found in accredited Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and other governmental breeding facilities, including Philadelphia Zoo. Eradication of the brown tree snake has proven to be extremely difficult despite a number of varying mitigation efforts, so scientists and researchers have devised another solution.

Supporting Conservation in the Marianas Islands

Philadelphia Zoo Curator of Birds Pete Bibeault and bird keeper Melissa Barth traveled across the world to the CNMI to support bird conservation initiatives there. Working with Pacific Bird Conservation and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands Division of Fish and Wildlife, Pete and Melissa spent three weeks in the field focused on protecting the Saipan reed warbler. The Marianas Avifauna Conservation Program is developing trapping and husbandry (the care, cultivation, and breeding of animals) techniques to effectively trap both sexes of the species and safely house them in preparation for potential future relocations.

“The Saipan reed warbler, also known as the Gaga karisu in the native Chamorro language, has distinct, shaggy head feathers and a long, slender bill,” says Bibeault. “What really makes this species special is that it’s the last surviving member of its genus in the Mariana islands: The nightingale reed warbler from Guam, Aguiguan reed warbler from Aguiguan, and Pagan reed warbler from Pagan have all been considered extinct since the late 20th century.”

This program in the Mariana Islands has been happening for more than two decades. Each year, the team focuses on either developing trapping and husbandry techniques or organizing a translocation for different species. Last year, it was the Rota white-eye; other years focused on the Rufous Fantail, the Mariana fruit doves, and other critically endangered species.

So, how do you catch a tiny bird that easily camouflages into its surroundings and can fly very fast?

“First, the team sets up a mist net in parts of their habitat we’ve spotted them before,” says Philadelphia Zoo Keeper Melissa Barth. “Then, to catch the males, we play a recording of one of their calls. Since reed warblers are territorial, they fly out to see who’s entered their territory.”

The mist nets are made of thin material that birds cannot easily see. Once caught in the net, the team gently untangles the bird and prepares them for travel to the “bird room,” where the birds are evaluated by a veterinarian, have measurements taken, and set up in an enclosure where the team then cares for the birds for up to 12 days. This is the amount of time the birds would be in human care for a translocation to a neighboring island.

During that time, the team manages each bird individually to ensure they are having their needs met and cares for them similarly to how the birds are cared for at the Zoo. The keepers feed the birds a variety of food, from live insects and hard-boiled egg to commercially produced food items made specifically for birds to see what the birds like best. This part of the research is extremely important as without proper husbandry techniques, future translocation would not be possible.

“There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to taking a bird to a new island,” says Bibeault. “We will continue to work with Pacific Bird Conservation and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands Division of Fish and Wildlife for when the time comes to move this species.”


A Longstanding Passion for Avian Conservation

Through his education in high school and college, Bibeault learned about Guam and the devastating history of their birds and native species, where his passion for protecting animals began.

He started working with Pacific Bird Conservation more than a decade ago. In 2015, he was part of the team that relocated the Tinian Monarch and Bridled White-eye from Tinian to Guguan.

“Having the opportunity to make a positive impact on a problem I learned about in school is extremely rewarding,” he says. “I’ve been lucky to continue this work with the support of previous institutions I’ve worked at, and felt Philadelphia Zoo, with its deep ties to Guam, would be a perfect fit for this project’s involvement as well.”

What Bibeault particularly likes about this project is that it provides the opportunity for his keeper team to participate in the fieldwork, using the skills they already have in taking care of the Zoo’s approximately 200 birds.

“I faced my fear of flying head-on with the 30-hour trip to the Marianas,” says Barth. “It was wonderful to be able to see first-hand how field conservation works and be able to provide needed help to the project.”

Stay tuned as the Zoo’s team continues to participate in this important conservation work.