YEAR OF THE BIRD… FOREVER! Celebrate birds every day with the L.A. Zoo.

NEW IN THE ZOO: Wombats, Vipers, Pigs, and Pygmy Falcons
December 6, 2018
Zoo Update with Connie Morgan
December 6, 2018

The spotted towhee is one of our most dapper local birds. They can sometimes be found on Zoo grounds scratching in the leaf litter in search of bugs and seeds to eat. Photo by Jamie Pham

Last year, a group of prestigious conservation organizations decided to commemorate the centennial of the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act (IMBTA) by declaring 2018 the Year of the Bird. Over the past 12 months, the Los Angeles Zoo joined the Audubon Society, Bird Life International, and National Geographic in celebrating our feathered friends with a variety of special events and projects that will hopefully have a lasting impact.

Mourning doves foraging for seeds in the California Bird Garden next to Sea Life Cliffs. Photo by Wilfredo Gavidia

In addition to the Zoo’s ongoing support of bird conservation programs around the world, six bird gardens were installed. Designed to draw attention to local and migratory species, each garden highlights plants from a specific geographic region (California, Baja California, North America, Africa, South America, and Australasia) that provide birds with food, shelter, and/or nesting sites. Additionally, window decals that help prevent bird strikes (the second leading cause of wild bird deaths) were installed throughout the Zoo’s education building.

Among the wild birds most commonly seen on Zoo grounds are mourning doves (background) and house finches (foreground). Photo by Michael Elliot

While the Year of the Bird is drawing to a close, the fact is that we celebrate avian wildlife every year at the L.A. Zoo. GLAZA members can enjoy three docent-led bird walks annually—opportunities to learn and enjoy the park before it opens to the general public. The winter walk (in February) coincides with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Great Backyard Bird Count, which takes place over Presidents Day weekend. The summer walk takes place on Bird L.A. Day (sponsored by the Audubon Society). The autumn walk is a chance to spot some of the migratory species that overwinter in Southern California. You can also discover endangered bird species from around the world every time you visit the Zoo.

Trumpeter swans rival California condors as the largest flying bird in North America; they require about 100 yards of open water to take off. Photo by Tad Motoyama

The current residents of the Zoo’s Swan Lake are living symbols of conservation success. In 1933, only 70 trumpeter swans were known to exist, the result of overharvesting for food, feathers, and skin, which was used to make powder puffs. Then, in the 1950s, an aerial survey of Alaska’s Copper River region revealed a previously unknown population of several thousand trumpeters. Thanks to this discovery, breeding and reintroduction programs were established and numbers in most of their historic range have recovered. By 2010, the North American population had grown to nearly 50,000 swans, though they are still threatened by habitat loss, illegal hunting, and lead poisoning from ammunition fragments and fishing weights. The Zoo’s trumpeters are of Alaskan lineage, so any offspring they produce will be candidates for release into the Pacific Coast population as part of a continuing reintroduction program.

Although trumpeter swan populations have rebounded, they are sensitive to human disturbance at their breeding sites and will abandon nests and cygnets if disturbed. Photo by Jamie Pham

 “Trumpeter swans rival condors as the largest flying bird in North America,” comments Curator of Birds Mike Maxcy. “Although the condor has a longer wing span—roughly eight feet as compared to six feet for trumpeters—this swan can weigh as much as 35 pounds, which is far heavier than the condors’ 25-pound weight limit. We look forward to being a part of the release program.”
Another North American species that has all but vanished in the wild is the masked bobwhite quail. North America's only endangered quail, this species was first discovered in 1884; by 1900, it had disappeared from the US. The combined pressures of intensive livestock grazing and drought contributed to its decline. Its historical range stretched from southern Arizona into Sonora, Mexico. Wild populations persisted in Mexico throughout the 1900s and early 2000s, and some may still exist there today. Biologists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), universities, nonprofits, and the Masked Bobwhite Recovery Team are working to preserve existing populations and hopefully return captive-bred birds to the wild. Twelve of these elegant birds recently took up residence with the greater roadrunners and chukar partridges in the North America section of the Zoo. Any offspring they produce would transfer to other zoos in order to establish new breeding groups.
The critically endangered blue-billed curassow inhabits grasslands, marshes, and meadows near lakes and streams in South America. Belonging to the order of birds known as galliformes, it is a tropical cousin of turkeys. These omnivorous birds eat fruits, shoots, small invertebrates, and possibly carrion. Found only a small region of northern Colombia, blue-billed curassow numbers are quickly diminishing due to the use of farming pesticides and destruction of native rainforest. A 2009 survey estimated the population of this species to be between 250 and 999 individuals, making it one of the rarest birds in the world. You can see them in the South America section of the Zoo.

Cape vultures Thelma and Louise are members of the World of Birds Show cast. Photo by Matt Carey

Of course, the Zoo’s work with California condors is one of its most important conservation efforts, but many other vultures are also imperiled. The L.A. Zoo is home to four vulture species in addition to the California condor: Andean condor, king vulture, black vulture, and Cape vulture, with which the Zoo has had a long history. Since 1996, the Zoo’s Cape vulture breeding group has produced 27 chicks.

One of 27 Cape vulture chicks that have hatched at the Zoo. Photo by Tad Motoyama

As scavengers, vultures’ association with death makes them both off-putting and fascinating to us. They have been revered as deities that can travel between the realms of the living and the dead and persecuted because of the misperception that they are dirty and carry disease. In actuality, they are fastidious birds with special adaptations that enable them to stay clean and disease-free, and they help control the spread of pathogens by disposing of decomposing carcasses. This year, the L.A. Zoo stepped up to help vultures as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) SAFE (Saving Animals from Extinction) program. “The Zoo is proud to be one of the founding partners of AZA’s African Vulture SAFE Program,” Maxcy comments. “The main goal of this action plan is to improve the population status of six species (Cape, hooded, white-backed, white-headed, lappet-faced, and Ruppell’s vultures) in at least 25 percent of their African range by 2020. Public awareness will be critical in the success of this program.”

Although still fairly common in South and Southeast Asia, golden-fronted leaf bird populations are being heavily impacted by collection for the pet trade. Photo by Jamie Pham

Other birds face conservation hurdles because people like them too much. In May 2017, a Fountain Valley man was arrested on suspicion of smuggling 93 Asian songbirds (several of which were species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES) from Vietnam to the Los Angeles International Airport. The songbirds, which are popular as pets, were packed into the man’s luggage in such a way that they had little or no freedom of movement, and all but five died. As is frequently the case in confiscations such as this, the surviving animals were transferred to the Zoo, where they received veterinary care. They included two red-billed blue magpies, one Indochinese green magpie, one Bali mynah/starling, and one gold-fronted leafbird. The Zoo was able to find mates or companions for most. The green magpies and the red-billed blue magpies now reside in the Australasian Aviary. The gold-fronted leaf bird and the Bali mynah live in an off-exhibit breeding and care facility—the Avian Conservation Center (ACC).

Found only in a semi-arid mountainous region in Bolivia (atypical habitat for parrots), red-fronted macaws are endangered. Photo by Jamie Pham


Military macaws were documented by Europeans in the 1500s. The name arose from the fact that military personnel brought them back to Europe, and it also alludes to their olive green coloring. Photo by Jamie Pham

Parrots are equally popular as pets and many species are also threatened by illegal collection for the pet trade. “Sometimes it’s not all that great being beautiful,” Maxcy observes. “Of the remaining 19 macaw species left on the planet, nearly half are considered vulnerable, threatened, or endangered. The pet trade, feather collection, and habitat destruction are taking their toll. Here at the L.A. Zoo, we house four of those species. In addition to the blue-throated macaw, we also exhibit the red-fronted macaw and scarlet macaw, and military macaws are part of our World of Birds Show. For the last several years, we have contributed to the Bird Endowment Fund. This organization has been installing nest boxes throughout the blue-throated macaw’s natural range. This project has become a big success with several pairs raising chicks in areas that were no longer suitable for nesting due to the logging of old growth trees.”

Once believed extinct in the wild, in 1992 a population of about 50 blue-throated macaws was discovered in northeastern Bolivia. Photo by Tad Motoyama

A pair of blue-throated macaws arrived at the Zoo in 2012, and it took four years before efforts to breed them in the Avian Conservation Center (ACC) paid off. The first chick is now an ambassador at Aquarium of the Pacific, the second chick is part of the World of Birds Show along with a non-related pair, and the parents remain at the ACC.

Two blue-throated macaw chicks have been raised at the Zoo. Here, the juvenile is almost the same size as the parents, but has not yet achieved full adult coloration. Photo by Lori Rogalski

This species, native to Bolivia, is critically endangered due to habitat loss and heavy collection for the pet trade. Although blue-throated macaws are protected and have benefited from intense conservation efforts, the impact on wild populations from over-collection in the 1970s and ’80s was severe. A 1998 survey recorded just 36 individuals in the wild. Bird Life International now estimates the wild population at 250–300 birds.

Animal Keeper Lori Rogalski builds a connection with tawny frogmouth Mopoke. Photo by Matt Carey

Some of the Zoo’s most important work with birds goes on behind the scenes at the Avian Conservation Center. Since 2012, Animal Keeper Lori Rogalski has cared for birds who need a little more privacy for nesting. Among these are Bali mynahs, blue-throated macaws, Congo peafowl, and Raggiana birds-of-paradise. “We have some of the most magnificent bird species that no one has heard of, here at the ACC,” Rogalski comments. “It's a puzzle to solve to find out what each different species needs and wants to help them successfully breed. They all use and make different kinds of nests, have different ways of courting each other, and have different nutritional needs. Our job is to provide all of those things along with a comfy, safe environment to help them succeed in hopes of saving some incredible bird species.”

Congo peafowl are smaller and somewhat less flashy than their Asian cousins. Photo by Jamie Pham

The Zoo offers so many ways to explore the world of birds and to support the avian neighbors in our own backyards and around the globe. Birds have much to teach us about the natural world, so make bird watching a part of your commitment to conservation every day!
HOLIDAYS ARE FOR THE BIRDS! Enjoy a special holiday adaptation of the World of Birds Show starting December 3. Among the species spotlighted in this dazzling free-flight display of natural behaviors are Cape vultures, crowned cranes, blue-throated macaws, and black vulture Mort! Demonstrations take place daily (except Tuesdays) at 12 and 2:30 p.m.