Zoo will be first in U.S. to attempt breeding rare bird

By Shawn Clubb, Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis
January 30, 2007

Mike Brady knows a horned guan he saw in the distance may bethe only time he ever sees the bird in the wild.

The Ballwin resident has made a handful of treks over thepast few years into the mountains of southern Chiapas, Mexico,where he had one encounter with a single horned guan. He saw it in an area thatis quickly becoming fragmented as coffee and banana plantations encroach on theforest.

"As inaccessible as the cloud forests of Mexico and manypristine areas of the world seem to be, unfortunately, they never seem to befar enough away from the machete, ax and chainsaw," Brady said.

That's why Brady, a member of the Webster Groves NatureStudy Society, is excited about the efforts of the Saint Louis Zoo, which hasmade horned guan conservation an initiative of its WildCare Institute. The zoois the first zoo outside of Mexicoto receive a pair of horned guans for display and breeding.

Michael Macek, curator of birds at the Saint Louis Zoo, saidother groups are working toward reversing the trend of cutting cloud forests togrow coffee. He said the Wildcare Institute is concentrating its efforts oncollecting basic information about the birds.

Guans are poultry-like birds, similar to turkeys. They livein Central and South America. Guans areclosely related to curassows and chachalacas, which all belong to the familyCracidae in the animal kingdom. Cracidae are the most endangered family ofbirds in the Western Hemisphere.

"In the neotropics, of the 50 or so odd birds in theCracid family, 32 or so are listed as critically endangered," Macek said."They were often hunted. In many cases, that has been the main reason forendangerment, as well as habitat loss."

The zoo has been working on its horned guan effort throughthe Wildcare Institute for about a year. Horned guans are now known to exist intwo separate populations. They are in the state of Chiapas,Mexico, and in the region ofLake Atitlan, Guatemala. Macek said there areestimated to be just 1,000 horned guans in the wild. He said researchers arelooking to see if the bird can be found elsewhere in the region.

The populations were probably contiguous at one point, Maceksaid, but encroachment by plantations and timber harvesting has fragmented thehabitat. He said hunting is less of a threat than before.

The WildCare Institute is focusing on doing a census todetermine an accurate population of the species. It is also trying to discoverthe bird's diet in nature and whether horned guans might play a role in seeddistribution, Macek said.

Last year, staff collected samples of 18 of the 64 plantsthe horned guan is known to feed on in the wild. Macek said they would go backtwo or three more times this year to collect more samples.

Macek said they also need to observe the bird more in thewild. He said horned guans tolerate observation and will sit in a tree abovesomeone for more than a half an hour sometimes before moving off. Macek wantsto track the birds by radio telemetry. Researchers can find them by hearingthem call in breeding season, but Macek said they otherwise are difficult tofind.

About 50 horned guans are in captivity in 10 Mexican zoos.Three of the zoos have successfully bred the species.

The Saint Louis Zoo received its two horned guans from theAfricam Zoo in Peubla, Mexico, which manages the hornedguan species survival plan for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The SaintLouis Zoo was picked to receive the guans because of its experience withcracids in the field, including piping guans in Trinidad and razor-billedcurassows in Columbia,Macek said. The zoo also developed artificial insemination techniques forcracids using the piping guan as a model.

The zoo's horned guans - a 4-year-old male and a 2½-year-old female - arrived in the U.S. more than two months ago. Theyhad to remain in a 30-day federal quarantine in Miami and then a 30-day quarantine at the zoobefore going on public display three weeks ago.

Macek said the birds have begun to show reproductivebehaviors. Captive horned guans breed from January through May. They lay twoeggs, which hatch in about 37 days. The zoo will breed the birds according tothe requirements of the species' survival plan.

"They need to get their numbers up right now,"Macek said.

Brady expects horned guans to be absent from the area wherehe saw one within the next five years because of habitat destruction.

"It's not all gloom and doom by any means, but there'sa mass land grab going on right now, especially in Guatemala, unless the Guatemalangovernment starts trying to preserve the habitat," Brady said.

While the zoo's efforts focus on gathering information andbreeding the bird, Brady said groups including Pro-Natura are promoting waysfor the native people in the region to earn a living without destroying thecloud forest. He said the group has hired some Mayan farmers to guard theareas, lead bird hikes and kept people from practicing slash-and-burnfarming.

Republished with permission of the Suburban Journals ofGreater St. Louis
Copyright 2005 Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis
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