Rosamond Gifford Zoo

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Notice: The Zoo Will Close at 1 p.m. on Friday, August 2 to Prepare for Brew at the Zoo. Admission will end at noon.

Zoo’s Impromptu Efforts Preserve Rare Piping Plover Clutch

Our animal staff practices Conservation in Action every day at the zoo, and sometimes, their expertise qualifies them to participate in spontaneous conservation efforts unrelated to the zoo animals in their care. 

Recently, Collection Manager Lucas Whitman had the chance to help save a clutch of rare piping plover eggs from Sandy Creek Island Beach State Park, near Sandy Pond, on Lake Ontario. The clutch was laid by one of only three breeding pairs in the area, but the male of the pair was likely predated, leaving the female incapable of protecting and providing for the clutch. 

When local stewards discovered this, they reached out to Bonnie Van Dam, associate bird curator at Detroit Zoo, who helps oversee piping plover conservation in and around the Great Lakes. Van Dam instructed the stewards to request help from local institutions, and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo was on that list. 

“As an institution we participate in many ex-situ conservation efforts that are very important,” Whitman said. “This was an incredible opportunity to extend our efforts beyond the zoo grounds.” 

Fish and Wildlife Ranger Tim Sullivan coordinated with Michigan FWS Officer Jillian Farkas to design a plan to get the plovers from Sandy Pond to a hatching facility in Michigan, but they’d need to have a layover in Syracuse. Officer Sullivan then contacted Whitman to ask if our zoo could care for the eggs for a week or so before the clutch would be sent to Detroit Zoo. Whitman eagerly accepted this chance to care for a critically endangered clutch. So, Tim came to the zoo, picked up our egg incubator, then picked up the clutch from Sandy Pond and brought them back to Syracuse. From there, Whitman and his bird team diligently monitored the incubator’s temperature, ensuring that it maintained a temperature between 99.5 and 99.9 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The keepers checked on the incubator four to five times a day, and once a day, Whitman would “candle” the eggs. Candling is a harmless way to observe the development of an embryo inside an egg. By holding a flashlight beneath the eggs, which created a silhouette of the chicks within, Whitman could see the chicks moving and could even see veins within the eggshell pumping. 

Ultimately, three out of four chicks were viable. It is possible that the fourth chick had already perished in the Sandy Pond nest before the clutch was rescued, though there is no way to know for sure. One thing is certain, though — the three surviving eggs could not have survived this ordeal if Officer Sullivan, Whitman, Van Dam, and other conservationists hadn’t sprung into action. 

After six days of consistent care at the zoo, the three eggs were driven to Pennsylvania, where they joined another piping plover clutch that had been similarly displaced. Both clutches were then driven to Detroit Zoo. After their stop in Detroit, the eggs headed north and reached their final destination in Northern Michigan. 

“It is very rewarding to help make a difference for a species so directly, especially with the knowledge that these birds will go right back out into the wild to help their population,” Whitman said. 

Conservation is an endless labor, however. Before our bird specialists could take pride in a job well done, they received another call, again concerning an abandoned clutch of piping plover eggs in Sandy Pond. Stewards in the area believe that the male of a second piping plover pair abandoned his nest and his mate, and is now nesting with the piping plover female who lost her mate in the beginning of this story. 

Officer Sullivan once again drove to Sandy Pond and rescued a clutch of four eggs. These eggs were further along in their development, and only required four days of care before they were driven to their rendezvous in Pennsylvania. The bird team treated this clutch just like the previous, and all four eggs were viable when they left the care of our zoo’s bird team and have all safely hatched. 

Our zoo is honored to have been able to play a role in the conservation of this endangered species. This experience demonstrates how the actions of a few conservation-minded individuals can truly make a difference in the world.

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