Monday, 4 March 2013

NSS Kids’ Fun with Baby Birds @ Jurong Bird Park
By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson with Timothy Pwee

The new Breeding and Research Centre at Jurong Bird Park (BRC @ JBP) was the main enticement for our visit on 21 July 2012. It is not every day that one gets to see baby birds up close. Only when we arrived did we realise that the BRC can be accessed by any park goer. Still, it was worth paying extra for two guides to walk us through the exhibits, and for a feeding session that the public was not privy to.

Eggs are turned automatically every hour so that the embryonic membrane does not stick to the egg shell.

The BRC is where the JBP conducts its breeding programme, located next to the Kings of the Skies performing arena. We were split into two groups. Our first stop was the Incubation Room. Here, we were told that eggs are incubated at temperatures of between 36.9°C to 37.2°C. The eggs are turned automatically every hour so that the embryonic membrane does not stick to the egg shell. Eggs hatch anytime between two to six weeks, with smaller birds hatching earlier. The new-born chicks are then transferred to the Nursery, and isolated in sound-proof brooders where temperature and humidity are controlled. We saw around 10 brooders containing mostly parrots. The one that drew the most admiring sighs held a most adorable Sunda Scops Owl. 

In the nursery, baby birds are isolated in sound-proof brooders where temperature and humidity are controlled.
When the chicks are old enough, they are placed in the Weaning Room – one for water birds and another for all other birds. Here, we saw two baby pelicans sitting in tubs. Although there looked big, they were still largely featherless. Young Hyacinth Macaws (a rare parrot that has been successfully bred by the JBP) and a whole lot of other parrot species were held in individual cages. The larger the bird, the longer they take to wean, sometimes needing as long as one year. At this point, birds are fed a nutritious mix of nuts, grains, fruits and insects, depending on the species. 
We saw how chicks, like this two month old White Cockatoo, are hand-fed using a syringe filled with liquid formula every two to three hours throughout the day.

In our classroom session, we were shown the gigantic eggs of the Ostrich, Emu and Cassowary, three of the biggest birds alive. In contrast, we also handled the miniscule eggs of the local Tailorbird, barely one centimetre across. The bird keeper then brought in a two month old saccharine-cute White Cockatoo chick. This little fella knew that lunch was close at hand, and was thus calling incessantly and bobbing its head eagerly. The keeper showed us where the baby’s crop was (a food sac near the breast area). Then she filled a syringe with liquid formula food and in one second, emptied its contents in the chick. We could see now that the crop had become swollen. We were told that babies are hand-fed every two to three hours throughout the day. Bird keepers themselves work 14-hour shifts from 7 am to 9 pm.

Before and after the BRC session, we were free to roam the park. Most of us caught the Birds and Buddies show as well as the Kings of the Skies performance. The former is a re-run of popular circus acts with a utilitarian Singapore twist, such as making birds pick up litter. The latter is a much better production with a fetching falconry sub-theme. Several bird handlers were togged up in falconry gear from around the world, namely Mongolia and Arabia, complete with horseback, fake rabbit, and even a bloodhound to simulate a hunt. The world of raptors was encapsulated in a half-hour spectacle of eagles, owls and vultures swooping low on the audience and looking regal with their piercing stares, powerful talons and massive bills. The only local raptor showcased was a flock of Brahminy Kites trained to catch food in mid-air. 

Walking around, we were glad to see that the Bird Park has been improving by phasing out the old practice of small individual cages that allow no more than a few flaps of the wing. There were many more aviaries than before, offering close encounters with free-flying birds in naturalised settings. Still, some old-fashioned coops were cleverly contained within aviaries – giving the impression of wild jungle and faux freedom. Nevertheless, it was better than drab concrete cells with sorry looking birds. Our wish is for JBP to hurry up and build habitat aviaries for the hornbills and larger parrots.

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