On May 17, one of the most endangered bird species on the planet hatched at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, Virginia. Although currently helpless and almost featherless, the female Guam Kingfisher will soon enough be vibrant and colorful, like her parents.
A closed-circuit camera inside the institute’s incubator caught the exact moment the chick hatched. Since hatching, the chick has been living in an incubator that mimics the conditions of a nest.
It has been four years since the last Guam Kingfisher chick hatched at SCBI. Guam Kingfishers are notoriously difficult to breed. They are territorial and it has been difficult to match compatible breeding pairs. The chick’s mother and father moved to SCBI from the Saint Louis Zoo in 2016 and 2014, respectively. This was the first fertile egg they have produced together. However, since the pair did not display appropriate parenting behaviors, keepers opted to artificially incubate the egg and are currently hand-raising the chick.
The incubation period for Guam Kingfishers is relatively short—only 21 to 23 days. The chick hatched after 22 days. During the incubation, keepers “candled” (shined a light against the shell of the egg) to track the chick’s development. When it hatched, the chick weighed 5.89 grams.
For the first seven days, keepers fed it every two hours, between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The chick eats chopped mice and crickets, mealworms and anoles. Keepers are gradually decreasing the number of feedings, until the chick is 30 days old and ready to fledge the nest.
The Guam Kingfisher (Todiramphus cinnamominus) is the most endangered species living at SCBI. There are only about 140 Guam Kingfishers in the world, and they all live in human care.
The species is currently classified as “Extinct In The Wild” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. According to the IUCN: “The species was previously found in a fairly wide variety of habitats throughout the island of Guam, including the edges of mangroves, wooded coastal lowlands, coconut palms and mixed upland forest and also large gardens with plenty of timber (Fry and Fry 1999, del Hoyo et al. 2001, Kesler in litt. 2013)…its decline and extinction in the wild is the result of predation by the introduced brown tree snake Boiga irregularis (Fritts and Rodda 1998). Predation by feral cats may have represented an additional threat.”
All existing Guam Kingfishers in the world are descended from 29 individuals. They were taken from the wild into human care in the 1980s to create a breeding program to save the species from total extinction. SCBI hatched its first chick in 1985. Since then, 19 chicks have hatched at SCBI as part of the Guam Kingfisher Species Survival Plan.
SCBI plays a leading role in the Smithsonian’s global efforts to save wildlife species from extinction and train future generations of conservationists. SCBI spearheads research programs at its headquarters in Front Royal, Va., the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and at field research stations and training sites worldwide. SCBI scientists tackle some of today’s most complex conservation challenges by applying and sharing what they learn about animal behavior and reproduction, ecology, genetics, migration and conservation sustainability.