St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Jeffrey Bonner
July 6, 2008

In the seventh of a monthly series this year, Saint Louis Zoo President Jeffrey Bonner explores a part of the globe where the Zoo is working to conserve threatened species, protect natural habitat and partner with other organizations to strengthen the web of life in which we all live.

A Turkey With a Party Hat

That has to be the best description I've ever heard of one of the rarest birds in the world, the horned guan. Fewer than 1,000 Horned Guans remain in the wild in the cloud forests of Mexico and Guatemala. The only place in America where you can see them is at the Saint Louis Zoo.

We have a pair of them on view just inside the main entrance of the Bird House. They're large birds, almost as big as a turkey. They have a bright white chest laced with fine lines of black feathers, and their bodies are covered with a jet black plumage that shines an iridescent blue in the sun. This makes their bright eyes look wide with wonder. But their most prominent feature is the 2-inch-long brilliant red horn - sticking straight up from the crown of their heads. It's crazy-looking - like turkeys in tuxedos wearing party hats.

Heard But Not Seen

Given their remarkable appearance, you'd think that the horned guan would be the subject of an enormous amount of scientific investigation; critically endangered and beautiful birds tend to draw the most attention, after all. But apart from a recent field study conducted by Michael Macek, our curator of birds, and Ellen Dierenfeld, our Zoo nutritionist, they have been largely studied by a single man, Fernando Gonzalez Garcia of the Instituto de Ecologia in Veracruz, Mexico.

That's partly because they are so hard to find: They live in two major isolated populations, one in Guatemala and another in Mexico, in high-altitude pine-oak cloud forests. The terrain is difficult - steep, slippery slopes - and the vegetation is so dense that you are much more likely to hear a horned guan than see one. When disturbed, they scream with a heart-stopping, intense guttural shriek. Even if you can't see them, you can be absolutely sure they're there.

The Saint Louis Zoo was the first in the United States to display these birds. We work closely with three zoos in Mexico to study them. I recently visited one of them, Africam Safari in Puebla, Mexico, while on a trip to speak at a conference of zoo directors from 11 Latin American countries. I would rather see them in the misty cloud forests of highland Chiapas, but it's still pretty cool to see them in Africam's huge aviaries.

Amy Camacho is the director of Africam Safari and Juan Cornejo is its curator of birds and international studbook keeper for the horned guan. Before going into the aviaries, they showed me a video of a breeding pair and their single chick (there are usually two in a clutch). Horned guan chicks - which are born with TWO horns that fuse into one - grow fast and are able to fly within days of birth.

No one knows why the horned guan has its horn; no other bird has anything even remotely resembling it. They are part of a family of birds called Cracids. Of the 50 or so species of Cracids, 32 are listed as threatened, endangered or critically endangered. Cracids in general and the horned guan in particular are in trouble for a variety of reasons. They're good to eat, for starters. Their cloud forest habitat is also being destroyed for logging, coffee plantations and other cash crops. The populations of horned guans in Mexico and Guatemala were probably one single population until they were separated by the increasing acreage devoted to coffee production.

Only three of the 11 zoos in Mexico have been able to get them to breed. The Saint Louis Zoo was the first to successfully artificially inseminate a relative of the horned guan, the piping guan. We hope to be able to apply what we learned from working with the common guan to help horned guans breed in captivity, including the two here.

Diet Research

Our curator of birds and our nutritionist have gone to the cloud forest to collect samples of the plants horned guans eat in the wild. And, working with the University of Mexico, they have studied the guans' eating habits in captivity. If we can figure out how better to feed and care for them in zoos, maybe we can get them to reproduce more. We'll also be able to determine what wild areas must be preserved for the guans to survive - and thrive. All this diet research is funded and coordinated by the Zoo's WildCare Institute. We are also helping educate local inhabitants of the regions where the guans live about the importance of conserving the birds and their habitat. International teamwork is critical to the success of efforts to protect this species - and many others.

Zoos like ours aren't just great places to see rare and exotic animals. Increasingly, we are playing a key role in understanding and conserving animal species. That's the true promise of zoos: ensuring the survival of wild populations. No zoo, even one as big as ours, can do this important work on its own. Together we can make a difference for animals like the horned guan.

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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