Zookeepers Convince Rare Chicks They Are Their Parents

Story By: Koen Berghuis, Sub Editor: Joseph Golder, Agency: Central European News

Video Credit: CEN/Waldrappteam LIFE

This heartwarming footage shows zookeepers convincing 29 endangered chicks they are their parents as they feed, pet, talk to and play with the birds before they migrate.

Anne-Gabriela Schmalstieg and Helena Wehner both work round the clock to nurture the 29 northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) chicks in a container next to the ibis aviary at the Schoenbrunn Zoo in the Austrian capital of Vienna.

Under the watchful eye of zoo visitors, who can see the two women during the entire process of feeding and caring for the endangered birds, the goal is to prepare the birds for a future introduction into the wild as part of a conservation project.

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Picture Credits: CEN/Waldrappteam LIFE & CEN/Daniel Zupanc & CEN/Tiergarten Schoenbrunn

Schmalstieg said: “We took the chicks when they were between three and eight days old. Since then we have been their only caregivers. We feed them, pet them, talk to them and play a lot with them. That is how they are shaped by us. This is crucial to be able to resettle later.”

In the video, the carers can be seen petting the cute chicks and feeding them with plastic spoons.

The northern bald ibis disappeared completely from Europe in the 17th Century due to overhunting, with their habitats reduced to North Africa and the Middle East.

The team around Schmalstieg and Wehner is part of a pan-European conservation project called Life+ to reintroduce the birds back into the wild.

The birds are reintroduced in the rocky Alps where they feel most at home. 

The tricky part is teaching the birds how to fly their yearly migratory route to Southern Tuscany, where they will spend each winter at the WWF protected area of the Orbetello Lagoon.

To achieve this, the project flies a microlight aircraft in stages from the Alps to Tuscany so the birds can follow their “big brother” and learn the route. 

Hoffmann said: “We have the honour of flying with the birds over the Alps, it’s a very special job and I love it.”

Johannes Fritz, who started the LIFE+ project five years ago to reintroduce the ibis, said that an increasing danger of such fights are attacks by golden eagles.

Video Credit: CEN/Tiergarten Schoenbrunn

He said: “Eagle attacks are happening with increasing frequency which is on the one hand great that the golden eagles are increasing in numbers, but it’s not good news for the ibis.”

But he said that amazingly after losing one of their number to an eagle attack previously, the Ibis had learned to tackle the threat in a different way, and instead of fleeing to the ground and the comparative safety of a tree or shrub, they had instead flown higher and flocked to the safety the microlight offers.

He said the birds had effectively learned that there was protection from eagles only when they went to their parent (the microlight), and the eagle had given up.

Fritz said: “We use imprinting in which the birds are given a human carer who they then regard as their parent, and who they then follow in the microlight to the winter feeding grounds. 

“This year we had a particularly strong imprint with parent Anne-Gabriela Schmalstieg and the birds seem to have flocked to her for safety when they were attacked.” 

The bird, also known as the hermit ibis or the waldrapp, is still critically endangered with worldwide numbers fewer than several hundred.

Koen Berghuis

Editor of DACHS / Benelux desk for Central European News, roving correspondent with a penchant for travel, culture, geopolitics, history and the in-depth story behind the headlines.