So often when we hear about endangered species, we feel helpless. How can one person in Pittsburgh help save an animal thousands of miles away? How can we play a part in helping a vanishing species survive?
The good news is that by supporting the National Aviary and its work, Pittsburghers never have to leave town to take part in conservation programs that are saving birds all over the world.
“Conservation is extremely important to us, and is at the heart of our work both here in Pittsburgh and abroad,” explained Senior Director of Zoological Advancement and Avian Medicine Dr. Pilar Fish. “Every day, we contribute to ongoing efforts to ensure bird populations of threatened and endangered species have opportunities to stabilize and recover.”
The National Aviary does this in a number of ways. It has dedicated staff with expertise in animal care, who have traveled abroad to assist in emergency situations, like rescue initiatives with flamingo chicks, African Penguins, and vultures around the world. Its team also assists in ongoing conservation efforts in places like the Mariana Islands and South Africa, sharing knowledge and skills and participating in boots-on-the-ground conservation projects that help species as varied as doves and vultures.
“Our Department of Conservation and Field Research works on longer-term studies both in and around Pittsburgh and in places like the Dominican Republic and Ecuador,” added Dr. Fish. “Their studies on birds like the Louisiana Waterthrush are helping researchers better understand the full annual life cycle of migration for birds, which can help inform conservation planning and management.”
Saving a Species
The National Aviary participates in breeding programs, called Species Survival Plans (SSPs) with other Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institutions. These SSPs are designed to enhance conservation of specific species, many of them threatened or endangered, and ensure that populations remain genetically diverse and demographically stable for the long-term.
“These collaborative programs have brought many species back from the brink of extinction,” said Dr. Fish, adding that the National Aviary participates in breeding programs for African Penguins, Guam Rails and Victoria Crowned Pigeons.
For example, in the late 1980s, there were only 21 Guam Rails left in the world after an invasive species decimated their population on Guam. Biologists and conservationists rescued those birds and placed their care in the hands of a few AZA zoos. Despite being extinct in the wild for more than 30 years, the species was able to slowly be reintroduced to islands near Guam, where they are now thriving.
“In 2019, we received the great news that Guam Rails had been upgraded from Extinct in the Wild to Critically Endangered,” said Dr. Fish, adding that more Guam Rails hatched at the National Aviary than at any other North American zoo. “It’s amazing to consider that on the other side of the globe, birds that hatched in Pittsburgh are now contributing to the long-term survival of their species in the wild.”
She added that SSPs can also act as ‘insurance’ against extinction for species currently facing threats in the wild.
“We work with several species from the Mariana Islands that are vulnerable to extinction given their small populations and not being widespread should a disaster occur, like a hurricane or the introduction of an invasive species,” said Dr. Fish. “Birds in human care help to ensure that the species can be repopulated and saved from extinction.”
The National Aviary also recently celebrated the hatching of an endangered African Penguin chick, which is the first to hatch to parents Buddy and Holly, and the eleventh to hatch at the facility. “There are only 13,000 African Penguin pairs remaining in the wild in South Africa, so every hatchling is important and offers hope for the survival of the species,” said Dr. Fish, adding that the chick is thriving thanks to customized and personalized care.
The Bigger Picture
While saving endangered birds is an admirable enough goal, these efforts help to protect the entire ecosystem as well.
“Because birds are an indicator species and are often the first to experience the effects of an environmental change, focusing conservation efforts on birds can actually benefit entire ecosystems,” said Dr. Fish, adding that the National Aviary’s conservation work touches on field conservation, veterinary care, breeding programs and education.
In Pittsburgh, for example, ornithologist Bob Mulvihill runs a research station for Project Owlnet, a continent-wide project that tracks the migration patterns of one of North America’s smallest owl species, the Northern Saw-whet Owl.
“Understanding how birds are using the environment and where and when they are migrating can help guide conservation decisions,” said Dr. Fish.
The National Aviary also works on the ground in several countries, contributing to ongoing projects in the Mariana Islands, where several bird species like the Mariana Fruit-dove and the Bridled White-eye are threatened by the presence of an invasive snake species, and in Ecuador where staff has helped to coordinate efforts to establish cooperative breeding programs for Andean Condors.
Fieldwork is not for the faint of heart, however.
“In Ecuador, I had the unique experience of helping a field biologist place a motion sensor camera on a cliff, high up at 20,000 feet,” said Dr. Fish. “The very next day, this camera caught an image of a male Andean Condor that had not previously been seen in the area.”
The National Aviary also provides supplies, funding and training to conservationists and veterinarians at zoos and wildlife centers in other countries, as well as works with local communities, including farmers and students, to engage them in the conservation of their native bird species.
Education is Key
While most Pittsburghers can only dream of traveling to Ecuador to save endangered condors, there are things you can do right here to help the nonprofit’s mission.
“When someone visits the National Aviary, they aren’t just going to see beautiful birds; so many species you encounter in our immersive habitats have incredible conservation stories, and our staff and volunteers are ready to share them, both in conversation and through our daily programs,” said Dr. Fish. “If you watch a Penguin Feeding, for example, you’ll learn about the threats African Penguins face in the wild—notably, overfishing—and how small changes, like purchasing sustainable seafood, can have a big effect.
“Our in-person and virtual programming also emphasizes conservation education,” she continued. “We offer programming for students, families and adults that gives participants the chance to see birds and their habitats in new ways and deepens their understanding of conservation issues affecting birds.”
Though the pandemic was a challenge for the National Aviary, they have been able to continue their mission with the help of the bird-loving public.
“We’re so grateful to our community who have supported us with their donations, by purchasing tickets, and by participating in our virtual programs and events,” said Dr. Fish. “Their support allows us to continue focusing on providing the highest standard of care for our flock, which includes working to save threatened and endangered species.”
To learn more about the National Aviary, visit www.nationalaviary.org.