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Werribee Open Range Zoo

Plains-wanderer chicks born at Werribee Zoo

20 November 2018

Meet Quagmire, Jane, Ramble and Clinton. The two-week-old chicks are new members of the critically endangered Plains-wanderer species – Australia’s most important bird.

In a Victorian-first, Werribee Open Range Zoo has successfully bred the native animal, which is so genetically distinct that there are no other birds quite like it in the world.

Born to parents Genevieve and Woods on November 4 in a specially designed breeding facility, the tiny chicks represent a huge milestone and an important step towards fighting the extinction of this exceptional bird. There are less than 1000 mature Plains-wanderers left in the wild.

“Breeding four healthy chicks is a huge achievement and one we are all very excited about,” said Werribee Open Range Zoo Threatened Species Keeper Yvette Pauligk. “Genetically speaking, they are listed as the fourth most important species worldwide, and the first most important in Australia in evolutionary distinctiveness and extinction risk. To lose such an ancient, unique species would be completely devastating.”

Rare ‘zoo keeper cam’ footage of the elusive newborns, captured on specially-installed monitoring cameras, shows the down-covered chicks taking their first wobbly steps, burying themselves under their dad for warmth, stretching, yawning, hunting ants and drinking droplets of water from blades of grass.

With Plains-wanderers, it’s the dad who incubates the eggs and raises the chicks, while the mum wanders off to find another mate.

“We’re really happy with their progress so far,” Ms Pauligk said. “They are displaying very healthy behaviours.”

The Plains-wanderer is a small, ground-dwelling bird native to the grasslands of south-eastern Australia. Once widespread from Victoria and South Australia to Queensland, the Plains-wanderer has undergone a dramatic decline in the past decade (more than 94 percent in some areas), with their last remaining strongholds in the Northern Plains of Victoria and New South Wales Riverina.

The major threats to their survival are the loss of native grasslands through cultivation and the condition and density of the grassland habitat that remains.

Zoos Victoria is part of Australia’s National Recovery Team for the Plains-wanderer, which was formed in 2016 in an emergency effort to save the species from extinction.

The focus of the breeding program is to establish an insurance population for the species, which will then enable captive-bred birds to be released back into the wild to increase populations in the Northern Plains of Victoria and New South Wales Riverina.

Zoos Victoria is also supporting local recovery team partners, Parks Victoria, DELWP and Trust for Nature who are working to preserve Plains-wanderer habitat by facilitating management of grazing and burning regimes to maintain suitable habitat.     

From Croydon to Werribee: More good news for Plains-wanderers

While the newborn chicks are huge news, they aren’t the only Plains-wanderer success story from the past few weeks.

On October 30, Werribee Open Range Zoo veterinarians received a very usual phone call. A mature Plains-wanderer had turned up in a suburban backyard in Croydon, more than 100km from the birds’ natural habitat.

It’s thought this bird could have been mistaken for a quail and taken in as a suburban pet before escaping, or flown south searching for a habitat that no longer exists. As his original territory is unknown, returning him to an unfamiliar place in the wild would expose him to the risk of predators and starvation.

The Plains-wanderer, now named Maroondah, was given a full health check and placed in acclimatisation for 48-hours, before being moved into his new specialised home.

“With so few birds left in the wild, and being so difficult to find, every single Plains-wanderer is precious,” Ms Pauligk said. “Maroondah also brings new genetics into the captive breeding program, which will help us improve their chances of survival when we begin returning them to the wild.”

The future looks bright for this critically endangered bird 

Werribee Open Range Zoo is now home to 11 Plains-wanderers, all under the care of expert zoo keepers who have developed highly successful husbandry techniques for this precious bird.

Female Wanda and male Potter are currently paired, and the team are hoping for more good news this breeding season.

“The learnings from this (breeding) milestone have been immense and we’re very hopeful,” Ms Pauligk said.

There are also plans to collect more birds from the wild after breeding season. The aim of the recovery program is to have 30 unique, individual founding birds in captivity across the country and an insurance population of 100 birds before beginning the process of releasing captive-born birds into the wild.

Ms Pauligk said the experience of working with such an endangered animal is a privilege.

“With so few left, seeing a Plains-wanderer is rare and breathtaking,” she said. “It’s something I hope we can make sure people continue to get the chance to do.”