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Baby birds big stars this year at Lowry Park Zoo

TAMPA

They're often upstaged by rhinos and elephants and giraffes.

But the aviary at the Lowry Park Zoo — with close to 600 birds, belonging to 135 species — has begun to take a more starring role, celebrating a series of births.

Here's a look back at a year of new life at the zoo, and a look ahead.

Penguin progress

Only once every two days, and for just a few minutes each time, the penguin chick is scooped from beneath its parents, to be weighed and photographed and given a look at the world outside its nest box.

Zookeeper Christine Rogers reached in last Thursday, wearing gloves in anticipation of a biting father, and emerged with a gray bird not much bigger than her hand, with feathers so small, they looked like fuzz.

Hatched Dec. 7, at a weight just under 2 ounces, the chick has fattened to more than a pound. It has begun to crawl, but cannot stand. It does not yet have a name, or a distinct personality. Even its sex, pending a blood test, is undetermined.

Despite all the unknowns, the baby's life plan was etched long before birth: To help prevent the extinction of the African penguin in as little as 15 years.

The chick descended from a line of penguins rescued from a South African oil spill about a decade ago. Decimated by water pollution and commercial fishing, the species is barely hanging on.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits Lowry Park Zoo, has established a "Species Survival Plan" to keep track of African penguins in captivity and recommend ideal genetic pairings for strong offspring.

Matchmaking is tricky. Penguins are monogamous, and over the past two years, the Lowry Park Zoo had to break up three established couples.

But the arranged marriages worked. In 2011, the zoo welcomed its first-ever penguin chicks — three of them — growing the zoo's group to 17.

Taki, a girl hatched in May, loves the company of people. And Marini, a boy hatched in February, is a loner who recently made his first friend, a penguin bachelor named Titan.

One day, next spring or summer, Taki and Marini will begin to eat lots of food, get bowling-ball round, and lose all feathers. For a while, they'll appear to sport awkward buzz cuts. But before long, fancy feathers will grow in.

Then, in a few months, each will join a betrothed in another zoo — Taki at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, and Marini, at the Georgia Aquarium.

Plans have yet to be made for the new chick, whose only responsibility right now is to continue to grow under the dark warmth of parents.

Baby boom

For four years, the greater flamingos in the zoo's African animal habitat area lived in an adults-only community. This summer, the baby boom began. First, one couple hatched an egg. Then, another.

By the end, there were six fluffy flamingo chicks, with legs the color of bubble gum. It will take a year or two for the young ones to look like the others. But their feathers, now gray, are beginning to show highlights of pink.

Also this year, a pair of tarictic hornbills, native to the Indonesian island Sulawesi, nested inside an opening in a zoo prop and sealed it up with mud, leaving only a hole for the male to bring the female food. She stayed in there for three months, sitting on an egg, and in June, hatched a male chick. With his birth, the population of the species in large North American zoos — those accredited by the AZA — jumped to 11.

A pair of sunbitterns, too, raised the zoo's first chick of their species. Lowry Park got a female not long ago, which bonded quickly with her mate; in August, their chick hatched. Keepers have watched her fly out of her nest and, for the first time, flex her feathers in a defensive posture, to show off what appear to be two giant eyes on her wings.

Still trying

Among the barren birds this year were, ironically, a pair of storks. And not just any storks — shoe-billed storks, birds so rare, there are only 5,000 to 10,000 in the wild, and so solitary, it's hard to hone in on a more accurate population count. There are only 11 of these birds in AZA zoos. Lowry Park Zoo won honors for a chick the pair raised in 2009, a girl named Binti who has since been moved to a mate in Houston. Binti gave zoo experts a chance to study the elusive bird in its youth.

It's not like the pair wasn't trying for another. Every day, zookeepers give them green materials to build a nest, and every day, the birds add to their collection. They court each other frequently, snapping their giant, clog-shaped beaks to the rhythm of a tap dance. They even took turns sitting on two eggs, but none yielded what they wanted.

Maybe 2012 will be the year.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354.

>>IF YOU GO

Lowry Park Zoo

>> Where: 1101 W Sligh Ave., Tampa

>> Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week

>> Tickets: one-day pass for adults, $23.95; seniors, $21.95; children 3-11, $18.95; children 2 and under are free

>> More information: lowryparkzoo.com, (813) 935-8552

Baby birds big stars this year at Lowry Park Zoo 12/28/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 29, 2011 7:59am]

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