The Santa Barbara Zoo has some new animal guests, but you won’t see them when you visit. However, the Animal Care Team is putting a lot of effort into two tiny local residents that needed a little help growing up. Two small Western snowy plover chicks are being cared for behind the scenes until they are old enough to be released back into the wild.
About as tall as sparrows, Western snowy plovers are shorebirds that nest in coastal areas from Baja California to Washington. We have a local nesting area in Goleta at Coal Oil Point Reserve. If you’ve been on a beach walk in one of the nesting areas, you might have noticed some fences or blocked areas to keep traffic and noise low for the tiny nesting birds. As their nests are made on the ground in shallow depressions in the sand that look like footprints, the birds can get startled away easily.
Our local Western snowy plover nest area is monitored by biologists from Coal Oil Point Reserve. Jessica Nielsen, the biologist, knows where each nest site is, when eggs are laid, when eggs are ready to hatch, and how long the parents will be in the area. The chicks hatch, and within a few hours, they leave the nest site with their parents and start learning how to catch insects to eat.
This year, on April 28, Jessica saw a nest with only one egg in it. There had been three eggs the day before! Jessica observed that the other two eggs had hatched and the mom had led the chicks away from the nest before the third egg hatched. She observed closely for several hours, but the plover parent did not return. Jessica picked up the egg, returned to the office, and put the egg in an incubator, where it hatched by the next day.
Jessica reached out to me when the chick was just a few days old. I drove to the reserve and returned to the Zoo with the chick, which was about as tall as my thumb! I was now charged with finding a warm, sandy place for the chick, with lots of insects to hunt.
We kept the chick in our animal hospital and fed it bloodworms, pinhead crickets, and mini mealworms. It was eating well on its own, and made a lot of very quiet “cheeps” as it ran back and forth in its holding area. When the chick was about 14 days old, we moved it to an outdoor flight pen.
Just in time too, because we got a call that there was another snowy plover chick that needed to be cared for!
From left to right: bird keepers Carol Hunsperger and Sarah Houchens, plover chick under a heat lamp, chick on the beach at Coal Oil Point.
The second bird was also found while still in an egg. This nest also had three eggs in it, but when it was checked one morning, there were signs that the nest had been disturbed by a skunk or raccoon. One egg had been shoved out of the nest and left there. Again, Jessica picked up the egg and brought it back to the office incubator. The chick hatched, and she brought it to the Zoo.
The second chick was smaller than the first, and much more vocal! It made so many squeaks and chirps.
The two plovers were soon living together in the flight pen. We made sure to stay away from them so they didn’t get used to people. They don’t imprint, like ducks and condors do, but we don’t want them to see humans as a source of food. Soon, both birds learned to fly.
On Thursday, June 16, we released them back at their native nesting area, where there are other fledgling plovers.
The breeding season for the Western snowy plover is March through September. While these two chicks have rejoined their wild relatives, there still could be more eggs or chicks in need.
The Zoo has committed to conserve this threatened shorebird and help increase their population numbers by taking in abandoned eggs or chicks, caring for them until they can take care of themselves, then releasing them into the wild.
The Animal Care Team is thrilled to be a part of this exciting (and very cute) project!
More photos and video of the orphaned snowy plover can be found here.