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Breeding success at Ardastra: Mating moments help replenish native species

They found mates, built nests, incubated a clutch of shiny white eggs and have raised their young. In the game of life, white-crowned pigeons – a near-threatened species – are finally winning, due in large measure to Ardastra Gardens, Zoo and Conservation Centre.

Hunting of The Bahamas’ most popular game bird and the loss of its habitat have both taken a toll on the white-crowned population resulting in the species’ dramatic decline.

For animal curator, Bonnie Young, white-crowned pigeons breeding at Ardastra is a win not only for the zoo and conservation centre, but also for the species.

“We have done rehab and successfully released many white-crowned pigeons, but we also have a group that was deemed un-releasable. This year our rehab birds have started breeding. We have three babies that were hatched and are doing very well, and we have another clutch of eggs that are being incubated right now,” said Young.

“Since these birds have been raised by their parents with very little interaction from us, our goal is to be able to release the babies.”

The “apple” of their bird and zoo parents’ eyes, not surprisingly, Ardastra wants to track their feathered friends’ movements post-release.

“We wanted to band them so if they’re sighted, we’ll have an idea of where they are and know that they’re still doing well,” said Hendrew Haley, Ardastra’s senior zookeeper.

“We’ll talk to the birding clubs, let them know what we’re doing. They’ll know these birds came from Ardastra.”

Another source of pride for Ardastra is the successful mating of Indian ringneck parakeets. Last year, a pair successfully reproduced with one surviving offspring.

Still, there are more than just the birds “getting busy” at Ardastra.

Animal attraction

“An Ardastra resident boa constrictor and a rescued Bahamian boa have had a lot of copulation recently. We won’t know about babies until around September/October,” said Young.

Boa constrictors could have anywhere from 20 to 70 babies. Of a clutch of 40 baby boas, two to three might make it through the first year. With more humans moving into the reptile’s habitat, there is less uninhabited spaces for the population.

“The white-crowned pigeons and the snake breeding is important because those are native species. If we could provide them with just a little bit of a head start, make sure they are nice and healthy and then release them, there’s a greater chance that more of them are going to survive that first year,” said Young.

“If they survive that first year, then the chance of them making it to adulthood and reproducing on their own goes up as well. It helps ensure the long-term health of the population on the island.”

The zoo also intends to breed its newest acquisition, five Bahamian hutias. Their exhibit opened in February. An endangered species of rodents, the two females and three males are settling in. A pair is expected to be selected to do what comes naturally.

“We’ll see how it goes,” said Young.

Ardastra isn’t stopping there. The first and only zoo in The Bahamas hopes to raise funds to renovate its rainbow lorikeets habitat, making it more conducive to breeding.

A popular attraction, visitors get to enter the birds’ cage and handfeed bits of apples to the small, brightly colored birds during interactions scheduled three times a day. Modifications to the current habitat would separate breeders from those participating in the interaction.

Meantime, the zoo has stepped up efforts to jumpstart its flamingo breeding program. The last chick hatched in 2012. Prior to that, Ardastra’s flamingos typically laid eggs almost every year between 2001 and 2012.

“We are in a bit of a slump. We’re at the time of year where if they are going to have eggs, they are going to start laying them,” said the animal curator who noted the flamingos could have stopped courting for a number of reasons.

Chief among these reasons are changing weather patterns and the relatively small flock at Ardastra.

“When the wild ones aren’t breeding and ours aren’t breeding at the same time, that makes some sense. It may be that they aren’t getting the rains at the right time of year or they aren’t getting enough rains, which provide an environmental cue that it is time to reproduce,” said the animal curator.

“One of the largest predictors of breeding success with flamingos is the number of birds in the flock. The more there are, the more likely they are to reproduce.”

Ardastra is home to 43 flamingos. The 31 birds in the breeding group range in age from eight to 41. Twelve flamingos are in the marching flock.

Every year, after the breeding season has come and gone, each group is evaluated to ensure individuals have time to pair off, rest and reproduce.

Although the zoo isn’t “overly concerned,” it has made attempts to get flamingos to breed. Members of the staff routinely manipulate the birds’ environment. They create starter nests which are kept nice and wet, sprinklers simulate the atmosphere of rain and two large mirrors are situated on both ends of the area where the flamingos spend the most time to give the illusion of a larger flock.

If all else fails, zoo officials are prepared to step up their efforts making major changes to its pond, where sediment has settled over the years.

“We’re committed to breeding success and getting them in the mood to make babies,” said Young.

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