I have visited the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, twice in my life, once in my youth and the other as a college student. One of the many things that impressed me was the range of the animals.” Our rainforest exhibit contains a nice collection of soft-billed birds and we have taken the opportunity to bring these birds center stage,” said Ken Howell, the curator of rain forest exhibits at the National Aquarium.
With a growing interest in managing smaller passerine birds in a more sustainable manner the National Aquarium has had considerable success with many of the species. Howell has been at the Aquarium for the past decade and contributes the success on the skilled and enthusiastic team of aviculturists and their ability to problem solve.” It can be difficult to maintain and [breed] multiple bird species within a walkthrough exhibit that also contains golden lion tamarins, two-toed sloths, fish, amphibians and lots of human visitors.”
Howell has working with animals his entire life and appreciates all species from spiders to hippos. With persistence and a bit of luck, he admits, he was able to break in to the zoo business many years ago.” There is so much to learn about living collections, and the people that care for them, and I find that even after 35 years in the business I am still actively learning,” he explained.
Birds can be seen at the Aquarium in the Upland Rainforest, Sea Cliffs and Australian exhibits. The Animal Programs section also contains a small number of birds that are used in public presentations.
The rainforest section houses more than a dozen species of birds and also manages the Sea Cliffs exhibit which contains Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills and Black Guillemots.
Meet Screaming Pihas
“I am very fond of our Screaming Pihas,” Howell said. Although common throughout much of South America they continue to remain rare at zoos. The Aquarium currently has one pair. “The male piha amazes everyone with his loud unique whistle like call. Surprisingly, very little is known about screaming piha biology and there is only a smattering of information on other piha species.”
The female on exhibit began constructing a nest a couple of years ago and the staff put all the information they gained into effect. Howell tells me that it is a slight exaggeration as the female piha makes an incredibly tiny and poorly-constructed platform on which to lay her egg.
Ornithologist, Alexander Skutch once described a piha nest as being “the most meager arboreal nest that I had seen, this unbelievably slight structure seemed to contain the irreducible minimum of material that would suffice to support an egg in the air.”
The female’s nest at the National Aquarium is no different. “[It’s] only 2 inches long by 1.5 inches wide and is constructed of curling vines,” Howell describes. “Rainforest aviculturists, uncomfortable with the design of the nest, inserted one or two additional twigs to provide greater support to the structure.”
With male pihas playing no role in nest building, incubation, or caring for the young the staff thought they could give the female a boost with nest building.
With a bit of luck the staff was able to see a single egg. “Light brown in color, it was perfectly camouflaged,” Howell recalled. “The female piha was acutely aware of and uncomfortable with anyone watching her and we spent only short periods of time examining her on the nest.”
What is even more remarkable is that the nest building, egg laying, and chick rearing all took place eight feet or less from the rainforest walkway where thousands of summer visitors were walking.
With previous work in rearing small birds in mind the staff introduced live silkworms into the piha diet. Once the egg hatched, the female preferentially fed silkworms to the chick. Since the female piha must leave the nest to eat and gather food for her chick single parenting is difficult.
“The piha chick relies completely on camouflage to remain safe in the nest when the mother is absent,” Howell says. “Remaining motionless, laying ventral side down with wings drooped at its side, and with eyes closed, the chick gives no indication that it is even alive.”
One of the rainforest aviculturists excitedly commented, “I think I saw it breathe.” Piha chicks do not peep, gap or beg, all things we traditionally associate with baby birds. This is to keep their location cryptic.
“The mother returns to the nest with food and taps the chick” beak which quickly opens, engulfs the food, and just as quickly closes again,” Howell said. “While the chick of the cinnamon-vented piha is described as resembling a hairy caterpillar complete with orange spines, our screaming piha chick resembled an odd gray grub that was as big as the nest upon which it laid.”
The piha mother was an excellent mother, with the chick fledging. This marked the second rearing of a screaming piha in captivity and the first in North America. “Quite remarkable,” Howell says.
You can meet a number of birds in the National Aquarium’s Upland Rainforest exhibit.
Within the last couple of months the Aquarium has successfully hatched and fledged turquoise tanagers, silver-beaked tanagers, red-capped cardinals, and blue-crowned motmots. Even more recent is the hatching of two Atlantic puffins. All of these species are managed within the AZA Species Survival Programs.
The National Aquarium is located at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor offering even more after you visit the facilities unique collection living in well planted fertile exhibits.
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