Guam kingfisher: London zookeeper helps hatch 'extinct in the wild' bird egg - ahead of hopeful release

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Just one of seven sihek eggs transported to a US zoo have successfully hatched so far, which could impact plans to finally reintroduce the birds to the wild.

British zookeepers have helped hatch a precious Guam kingfisher egg at a US zoo, as part of a project to re-establish a wild population of the birds - now only found in captivity.

The new arrival, a female, hatched on 28 April at Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas, and is now being cared for around the clock by a team of specialists - including two birdkeepers from the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) zoos. She came from one of seven eggs transported more than 600 miles across the US to be cared for by an expert term, who hope to reintroduce the birds to a nature refuge on Palmyra Atoll - in the Pacific Islands - later this year.

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There are thought to be less than 150 Guam kingfishers - or sihek as they are known to the Chamoru people - left in the world today, and only 45 breeding females. The striking orange and blue birds, endemic to the US Pacific island territory of Guam, were classified as extinct in the wild in 1988 after the accidental introduction of brown tree snakes 40 years earlier. Although efforts are underway to control the exploding snake population, all of the world's remaining sihek are in human care.

The new arrival is a female, with only 45 other breeding females of the species left (Photo: ZSL/Supplied)The new arrival is a female, with only 45 other breeding females of the species left (Photo: ZSL/Supplied)
The new arrival is a female, with only 45 other breeding females of the species left (Photo: ZSL/Supplied) | ZSL

Charlotte James, a birdkeeper from London Zoo who has been assisting with the Sihek Recovery Programme, said that each egg was the size of a marble, and monitoring them required a lot of care and patience. “It's such a priceless moment seeing the first signs of hatching as these tiny eggs start to crack, revealing an invaluable new member of this unique species beneath their hard shells."

The chick was currently enjoying a nutritious diet of mice and insects provided by her carers, she continued, but in the forests of Palmyra Atoll, the birds would have to learn to hunt themselves - for everything from insects to geckos.

The Guam kingfisher's adult plumage is cinnamon and blue in colour (Photo: ZSL/Supplied)The Guam kingfisher's adult plumage is cinnamon and blue in colour (Photo: ZSL/Supplied)
The Guam kingfisher's adult plumage is cinnamon and blue in colour (Photo: ZSL/Supplied) | ZSL

“Looking after these chicks during hatching is just the start of our work. With her eyes closed, a distinct lack of feathers and weighing no more than a pencil, this chick entered the world rather strange-looking and completely dependent on us,” Ms James said. “But in just 30 days, she’ll have grown almost ten times heavier and be covered in beautiful blue and cinnamon-coloured plumage.”

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Despite their tiny size, each chick was of huge importance - a beacon of hope for the future of the species, she added. “From feeding, weighing and monitoring them, we’re using the knowledge we've gained from raising chicks previously to make sure we’re giving these birds the strongest possible start.”

Excitingly, even more sihek chicks were due to hatch over the coming weeks. The Sihek Recovery Program hoped to release nine of them into Palmyra Atoll’s protected predator-free zone later this year.

The new chick is currently being fed a nutritious diet of mice and insects (Photo: ZSL/Supplied)The new chick is currently being fed a nutritious diet of mice and insects (Photo: ZSL/Supplied)
The new chick is currently being fed a nutritious diet of mice and insects (Photo: ZSL/Supplied) | ZSL

But team chair, ZSL’s Professor John Ewen, said that all depended on what happened over the next few weeks. “Conservation zoos have played a vital role in saving these birds from certain extinction... Now, in a growing global partnership, we’re working towards the next exciting step of releasing sihek back into the wild, first on Palmyra Atoll where they will find a safe wild home to thrive in, but ultimately then to a snake-free Guam.”

There were, however, many complexities involved in re-establishing a wild population, he continued, especially with a species “as close to the edge of extinction” as the sihek. Only one of the seven eggs that had made the journey to Sedgwick County Zoo had successfully hatched so far, Professor Ewen said. “[This highlights] not only how special this tiny chick is, but why it’s so vital that we continue to build large populations of extinct in the wild species under human care, and work as quickly as possible to restore their wild numbers.”

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The team remained hopeful for the colourful bird’s future, he said, and similar efforts had paid off in the past. Last year, the previously extinct-in-the-wild scimitar horned oryx was downgraded to ‘endangered’ status, after a captive breeding programme saw a small herd reintroduced to Chad. “We can reverse the fate of the species on the very brink of extinction. Siheks deserve a chance to flourish in the wild once again - and it’s well worth taking our time to get it right.”

The new chick’s arrival was also being celebrated in its native Guam. Yolonda Topasna, from the Guam Department of Agriculture’s wildlife division, said in a statement: “We’re all thrilled that this year’s first chick has hatched and is doing so well.

“These beautiful birds haven’t sung in the forests of Guam for over 30 years, but this exciting moment brings us one step closer to the release of Guam sihek onto Palmyra Atoll - a pivotal step towards the eventual reintroduction of this stunning creature to Islan Guahan.”

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