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Bird Conservation at Bristol Zoo Project

Posted on: 11 September, 2023

Bristol Zoo Project is home to the incredibly rare Socorro dove, which became Extinct in the Wild just over 50 years ago. However, with breeding programmes like those at Bristol Zoo Project, plans are underway to reintroduce this species back to its home range. Bristol Zoological Society successfully started breeding Socorro doves more than 20 years ago, with the first birds arriving in 1999.

Why do we keep captive birds?

Bristol Zoo Project plays a critical role in the conservation of threatened birds by providing what is called ‘insurance populations’. This is when a species is maintained and bred in captivity, and if required, can then be released back into the wild, boosting wild populations and preventing extinction.

For example, the pink pigeon is bred at Bristol Zoo Project to maintain a sustainable population, which is used to bolster the wild population. This Vulnerable species is one that the Society has worked with for a number of years and is a conservation success story having recently improved its conservation status from Endangered to Vulnerable.

Bristol Zoological Society, which is a conservation charity, is also part of collaborative breeding programmes within the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) where birds are regularly exchanged with other zoos to continue maintaining sustainable populations. For example, we sent a female pink pigeon to Jersey and a Socorro dove to ZSL.

What other birds can you find at Bristol Zoo Project?

A sumatran laughing thrush perching on a branch. Its body is black, and its head is white with black outlining around its eyes.

Bristol Zoo Project is home to some of the world’s rarest species of birds including seven Vulnerable European turtledoves, a Vulnerable Mindanao bleeding heart dove, four Endangered Visayan tarictic hornbills and one Endangered Sumatran laughing thrush. A male hornbill was bred this year from our established breeding pair.  

The European turtle dove has decreased as a species in the UK by a staggering 94% over the last 25 years. Climate change, agricultural changes, disease and habitat destruction all have a part to play, but illegal hunting during migration to and from Africa is a major factor in this species decline. Bristol Zoological Society has been successfully breeding this species for a number of years.  

The Mindanao bleeding heart dove, named after their red breast plumage, forms part of a group of bleeding heart doves found throughout the Philippines including the Critically Endangered Negros bleeding heart dove, our flagship species for our Philippine conservation project.

In addition to conservation work within the zoo, Bristol Zoological Society also has a conservation project in the wild in the Philippines, where it is working to save the Critically Endangered Negros bleeding heart dove. With fewer than 300 of the species left in the wild, they are at risk of extinction from habitat loss and hunting. The Society works in collaboration with CENTROP (Centre for Tropical Conservation Studies in the Negros Island) providing funding for aviaries and breeding facilities. Bristol Zoological Society’s conservation team also works with local experts and communities in the Philippines to help change perceptions and encourage sustainable behaviours.

Bristol Zoo Project’s latest resident bird species is the common ostrich. It is home to a male and female that arrived in 2023. It is the first time Bristol Zoo Project has cared for an ostrich and it plans to trial breeding the pair before introducing the rarer red-necked ostrich.

A village weaver perching on a branch surrounded by weaves. It is bright yellow.

Why are some birds off-show?

As well as being a visitor attraction, Bristol Zoological Society is a conservation charity and therefore a lot of critical conservation work happens behind the scenes. Some birds are in aviaries off show to provide a space where our dedicated team of keepers can manage individual pairs and focus on their breeding.

The zoo is also home to two Critically Endangered Philippine red vented cockatoos. This medium-sized parrot requires a substantial aviary space and keeper monitoring. Known for being aggressive and destructive, the species do not mix easily with other species. They require lots of replenishment of aviary infrastructure and ongoing maintenance. Therefore, they have their own spacious aviary behind the publicly-facing birds. Bristol Zoological Society’s breeding programme is essential for the species’ continued survival.

Birds are also kept away from the public when their chicks hatch to ensure they concentrate on feeding their offspring. The animal keepers have cameras trained on nests to monitor the chicks and to ensure that the parents provide adequate food.

Our animal keepers play a crucial role in saving bird species. They undertake invaluable research by monitoring the birds’ behaviours, carry out health checks and ensure the aviaries are adequate for breeding by providing facilities that the birds need to breed successfully.

Trevor Franks, Curator of Birds, has worked at the zoo for over 15 years and has incubated and hand-reared multiple endangered bird species.

“It’s really exciting to be at the initial stages of new bird exhibits and being part of the team that will be designing the new Bristol Zoo Project, including its new incubation and conservation breeding facilities,” he said.

How are the birds prepared for reintroduction to the wild?  

Species are prepared for reintroduction to the wild by emulating their native habitats and encouraging their innate wild behaviours. For example, hornbills follow a unique breeding process which involves the mother sealing herself inside the cavity of a tree, which is prepared by bird experts at the zoo.

She seals it with natural materials leaving only a very small hole – a process called ‘mudding up’ – before laying her eggs and incubating them.

The mother depends solely on the male bird for her food and, once hatched, he then has to bring enough food to feed both mother and chicks, often making up to 70 trips every day.

The keepers prepare fruit and insects for the father to find to bring to the mother and chicks. The mother remains in the nest with the chicks until they are ready to leave.

At this point the male, female and chicks all peck at the sealed entrance until it crumbles away leaving them enough space to get out. The female leaves the nest before the chicks to encourage them to follow her.

How can you get involved with bird conservation?

Bristol Zoological Society relies on generous support from the public to fund its critical conservation work. Each visit to the zoo contributes to our mission of Saving Wildlife Together. You can see our amazing bird species in the Walled Garden at Bristol Zoo Project, just off J17 of the M5.

Become a member and visit as many times as you like throughout the year and enjoy exclusive benefits.

You can also donate to Save Wildlife Together. Your donation makes it possible to continue our conservation science efforts worldwide.