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St. Catherines welcomes new residents
Where the wild things are
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There have been a few additions to the wildlife population on St. Catherines Island Wildlife Survival Center and the curators and animal keepers are celebrating the new arrivals.
The center serves as a refuge of last resort for endangered and threatened species from around the world.
St. Catherines Island Aviculturist Debbie Belgio said she’s happy about the chicks that hatched recently in the Oglethorpe Aviary, which houses the Asian hornbills, one of the exotic bird species on the island.
The island also received a pair of palm cockatoos and in the hoofstock animal category, zookeepers have welcomed three new calves to the population.

Baby hornbills

Belgio said one of the new chicks emerged from the nest Saturday. The new chick, a wrinkled hornbill, hatched roughly two and a half months ago. A second hatchling, a wreathed hornbill, is thought to be doing well and can be heard making sounds but has yet to emerge from the enclosed nest.
Belgio said a third chick, a great hornbill, hatched but died four days later. That adult hornbill that laid the egg from which the short-lived baby hatched is no spring chicken.
“Josephine is 61 and she hatched a chick,” Belgio said. “She has laid eggs for years … and we didn’t expect anything to happen but then I heard chick sounds one morning. At first I thought I was hallucinating … most of her eggs have not been viable.”
Belgio said she thinks Josephine is the oldest Asian hornbill of any species in captivity. Her mate Joe is in his 40s.
The last time the center had successful hatchlings was in 2007, Belgio said.
“In 2007, they had two chicks,” she said of the wreathed hornbill pair, known on the island as Mr. and Mrs. Toots. “Then they took a break in 2008 and 2009 and now they had the one chick.”
Belgio said the incubation process takes a few months. The center uses whiskey barrels to simulate a tree cavity. The females enclose themselves in the cavity to incubate the eggs.
“They make it out of feces, saliva and substrates and food items and make that fiber board seal,” she said. “It could take several days or even a week depending on how industrious they are. Normally they lay an egg or eggs within a week.”
Belgio said the incubation period is anywhere between 20 to 32 days, depending on the species. Once the eggs are hatched, the mother and new baby remain inside the nest until they are ready to venture out, typically around two and a half months after hatching.
Belgio said they will wait until the chicks become adjusted to their new surroundings and then conduct complete medical evaluations. During the physical, they will draw blood samples and a portion of the blood drawn gets DNA tested to determine the birds’ genders.

Palm cockatoos

Von Kment, the St. Catherines Island animal program curator, has worked at the center for the past 20 years. He has worked with birds before but recently has been overseeing the hoofstock animals. He said he was excited about the opportunity to work with the new palm cockatoos.
“They are found in Australia and New Zealand and I think they are magnificent,” he said while pointing out their unique colors and features. “We have had them in the past and we have done well with them and just got the opportunity to get this pair in. Right now, they are going through quarantine as well as being paired.”
The large birds are a smoke-gray color except for their cheeks, which are red.
The pair was brought to St. Catherines Island from the White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, Fla.
Kment said White Oak was already pairing the birds when financial woes forced them to send the birds to him to care for.
“They were in the process of pairing them up so we are pretty confident they will be socially compatible,” he said.
Currently, the birds are housed in adjacent cages while they complete their time in quarantine.
Kment said they were middle-aged birds; the male was captured in the 1970s and the female in the 1980s. He said the pair will be released from quarantine and the keepers will house them in a single unit.
Kment described a male palm cockatoo mating ritual.
“The male will establish a territory and vocalize and that will draw in the females,” he said. “Then he goes through a courtship, spreading his head feathers out and prancing around and their cheek patch will get bright red.”

Jackson hartebeest

Among the hoofstock species, Kment said, they’ve had three new calves. He said they are fortunate the recent weather, while extremely hot, has not drawn in their main problem — flies.
“The only negative thing about the summer time is the flies,” he said. “They can get really bad and it drives them crazy and it is tough on the new moms and the new calves because there are times when it gets so bad they just don’t stand still. And they don’t want to stand still and let the calves nurse.”
As for the heat, Kment said, “We have more to worry about when it’s cold than when it’s hot. They have plenty of shade and plenty of water.”
Kment said the center is working with other research centers, including White Oak, in order to find a more viable solution to breeding the animals to increase population. Among one of the collaborations is a study on artificial insemination completed with the help of a White Oak scientist.
The curator said artificial insemination will allow researchers to increase the populations of the endangered hoofstock species without risking injury to the animals during transport. He said it also means they don’t have to take wild animals out of the wild to repopulate the species.

Editor’s note: This story is part one of a series on the animals on St. Catherines Island and the researchers and specialists who care for them.
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