Edinburgh zoo hatch nine rare Darwin Rhea chicks

Bird keepers at Edinburgh Zoo had a surprise when NINE of the Darwin rhea chicks hatched. Picture:contributedBird keepers at Edinburgh Zoo had a surprise when NINE of the Darwin rhea chicks hatched. Picture:contributed
Bird keepers at Edinburgh Zoo had a surprise when NINE of the Darwin rhea chicks hatched. Picture:contributed
EDINBURGH zoo bird keepers have faced a delightful dilemma of having “an incredible nine” rare and endangered chicks to care for.

The bird keepers were hoping their hard work would pay off by getting one chick from a rare pair of Darwin’s rheas -- instead they were surprised with nine chicks.

The development was hailed today/yesterday [FRI] as a great achievement for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which owns and manages Edinburgh Zoo, as Darwin’s rhea chicks have only been born and successfully raised in a very small number of zoos in the UK -- certainly never thriving in such large numbers.

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Darwin’s rheas are large flightless birds, named after Charles Darwin who came across one of the birds during the second voyage of HMS Beagle in 1833; his party shot and started to eat one of the birds before Darwin realised it was a new species.

The rare Darwins rhea chicks. Picture: contributedThe rare Darwins rhea chicks. Picture: contributed
The rare Darwins rhea chicks. Picture: contributed

In the wild the species is found in South America, ranging from the Pantanal down to Argentina and is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as Near Threatened.

Special outdoor exercise routine

The animal experts believe their success has been down to, amongst other things, a special outdoor exercise routine and a varied diet of fresh weeds from across the Zoo’s grounds.

Nick Dowling, Senior Bird Keeper at Edinburgh Zoo, said: “Our Darwin’s rhea pair, Evita and Ramon, are in their first breeding season together here at Edinburgh Zoo and we were hopeful we might successfully help them to hatch and rear their first chick this year. It was beyond our wildest expectations that we would end up with so many -- an incredible total of nine.

“The chicks have all been artificially incubated as the keepers were concerned about wild birds damaging the precious eggs when Ramon left the nest to feed; in the wild, it is the male of this species sits on the eggs to incubate them.

Some of the chicks needed help

“As soon as the eggs started to hatch in our incubator, we transferred them into a machine called a brooder for a couple of hours and then into a specially made pen with heat lamps. Some of the chicks even needed help to kick their way out of their eggs.

“Feeding these nine large birds has been a big, but enjoyable challenge.”

Nick said that to stimulate feeding, the keepers encouraged the chicks to peck at food with a “puppet” rhea parent, made from old rhea feathers, a photo of an adults head and an old sock.

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“From only a couple of days old, we built special little pens in an sunny off show area of the Zoo and let the chicks run riot in there.

“Watched over closely by RZSS volunteers, the chicks got at least four hours of exercise per day and plenty of vitamin D from the good weather we have been having.

“This exercise mirrors what would happen in the wild as from a very young age the birds have to chase after their parents as they forage for food. Believe it or not the exercise actually helps to keep the birds regular, which can be a real problem for Darwin’s rhea young.

‘The birds are balls of energy’

“The birds are balls of energy and run around non-stop and they are also eating machines, but we are not complaining as it is an amazing and unexpected problem to have. We are delighted and extremely proud that Edinburgh Zoo has succeeded in hatching and rearing such a difficult and increasingly threatened species.”

Rhea chicks incubate for 35 days and out of the nine chicks, the oldest pair are two months old and weigh around five kilos, three chicks are around a month old and the final four are just over a week old.

The chicks have yet to be sexed, but a vet will take a tiny blood sample to analyse for DNA. Once they have been sexed the chicks will get their names.

Visitors to the Zoo can see the two month old chicks.

Darwin’s rhea first arrived at Edinburgh Zoo in 2007, but the current pair, Evita and Ramon, both hatched in French zoos in 2011, and were first paired at Edinburgh in mid-2013.