The Houston Zoo is loaded with exotic animals such as elephants, giraffes rhinos, but you’ve probably seen some less exotic creatures wandering the paths. You can spot lizards, rabbits and even chickens, which play a very important role.
Birdkeeper Kelly Pardy gently taps the bottom of a plastic bin, signaling to the resident chicken population that it’s lunchtime. The chickens swarm a small clearing, pecking around for a tasty treat.
They live nearby in a big coop, but the chickens love to wander. You’re just as likely to find them by their water bowl as you are on a path.
“People see the chickens and think, ‘Oh, cool, a chicken’s here,’ but they do play a really important role,” Pardy says.
The zoo’s clutch is clutch when it comes to raising rare and endangered birds.
“They’ll actually sit on the eggs from some of the species we work with here at the zoo,” says Pardy, explaining that in some cases, the hens raise the chicks.
“The chickens are very maternal and pretty much that hatches out under them, they’re pretty good at taking care of right away.”
That’s what is happening in one of the behind-the-scenes pens at the zoo: a mama hen is raising her two baby blue-billed currasows.
“This chicken is essentially raising birds that, in the wild, are having a lot of issues,” Pardy explains.
Currasows are endangered and they’re only found in Colombia. The Houston Zoo is working to rebuild the bird’s population with its captive breeding program and Colombian partnerships.
“They’ve actually worked with the zoological institutions there and some of their keepers,” says Pardy. “They’ve taught them a lot of incubation practices and done a lot of important work with that.”
Those currasow chicks are the result of a bird swap of sorts with a zoo in Portugal to mix up the birds’ genetic diversity. Both currasows involved in that trade have now successfully had chicks thanks, in part, to the Houston Zoo’s chickens.
“It’s incredible,” Pardy says.