Aviculturists at Paignton Zoo Environmental Park in Devon are learning how to care for some difficult chicks. They are developing a new protocol for hand rearing Darwin's rhea. Darwin's rhea (Rhea pennata), also called the lesser rhea, is a large flightless bird from South America. An adult bird can stand up to 100 centimetres (39 inches) in height and can weigh as much as 28 kilos (63 pounds). It can reach speeds of up to 60 kilometres an hour (37mph). While the bird breeds occasionally in zoos, chicks can be difficult to hand rear. Curator of Birds Jo Gregson explained: “We are trying to develop a protocol for hand rearing. Paignton Zoo has a good record with ratites – cassowaries, emus, ostriches – which is why we took on the job. We also hold the studbook for these birds now. It’s important to learn all we can about how to care for them.” Keepers took eggs that were scattered around the enclosure and were not going to be cared for by the adult birds. Of these, 3 have hatched so far - one on 8th June and the other two on 9th - with more eggs in the incubator. Everything from the temperature and humidity in the incubator to how often the eggs are turned is recorded. Once the eggs hatch, aviculturalists make a note of every last detail of rearing – what, when and how often the chicks eat, how much exercise they get, and so on. Failure can tell staff as much as success. Information is compiled and shared with other collections. And what is the secret? Jo: “It’s all about the poop! Constipation can be a problem for chicks and it can kill. Exercise helps to keep them regular. Keepers have to encourage them to walk and then run. They also need Vitamin D, so we have to get them out into the sunshine. They are terrific, but they are not the brightest of birds!” Charles Darwin came across the species during the second voyage of HMS Beagle, in 1833. The party shot and started to eat one before Darwin realised that this was the new species he had been looking for. He managed to preserve the head, neck, legs, one wing, and many of the larger feathers.
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