Paignton Zoo’s Senior Keeper of Birds, Tom Tooley, has a passion for pigeons. So much so that he travelled over 6,000 miles to spend his Christmas working with local conservationists on the island of Mauritius to help save one species in particular.

Tom has been volunteering with the Pink Pigeon Project for several years, using his annual holiday allowance to cover his time away from the Zoo. Now, Tom’s passion for this Endangered species has brought Paignton Zoo and the Pink Pigeon Project together.

“This was my fifth and longest visit to the project in Mauritius. Normally I go for 6 weeks, but this time I was there for 3 months on secondment,” Tom explained.
The project is run by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and based at the Gerald Durrell Endemic Wildlife Sanctuary, which is owned by the National Parks and Conservation Services (NPCS). Now that’s some collaboration! 

In 1994 the wild pink pigeon population was estimated to be around just 8 birds, making it probably one of the most threatened species in the world. To save the pink pigeon from extinction, an intensive management programme was put into place. As a result, by 2000 the species population had grown significantly and the extinction risk was downgraded from Critically Endangered to Endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Being our resident pigeon expert, Tom went to lend an extra hand, put his research into practice, pass on new husbandry techniques to the team and help to train the staff to hand rear chicks.

“Pink pigeons are clumsy birds and notoriously bad parents, which doesn’t help their numbers,” Tom explains. To minimise hand rearing, Barbary doves are being used as foster parents for the chicks. The team removes the fertile pink pigeon eggs before they hatch and place them in the nest of the Barbary doves, who then feed and raise the chicks until fledging age of around 21-25 days. This method increases the success rate of survival, but on the occasions that fostering fails, the team steps in and hand rears the chicks.

Hand rearing is not an easy job, it takes patience and perseverance. “The days are long, and we work 12 hour shifts with very little time off. At one point I moved into the sanctuary because of a level 2 cyclone warning. If it was upgraded to a level 3, we wouldn’t have been able to get to the sanctuary as it is a fineable offence to be outside during a severe cyclone.” The team had to tie down and secure everything in the sanctuary - but luckily, the cyclone didn’t escalate.

The team successfully reared 8 squabs (chicks) from 5 pairs of adults, 3 of which were hand reared by the time Tom left the island. He’s already looking forward to his next visit!


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