How do you ensure the very best care and conservation of wildlife? An extremely important component of wildlife conservation science is ensuring our keepers and curators are up to date with the latest best practices in animal husbandry. This includes taking opportunities to share knowledge within our diverse network of zoo colleagues and conservationists.

We do this by welcoming our peers to Auckland Zoo to share our learnings, as well as our kaimahi travelling internationally or around the motu to learn how other organisations are applying the latest science and knowledge to the care of wildlife and wild places. 

Bird keeper Sarah has been a valued part of our Auckland Zoo whānau for more than eight years yet her pathway into conservation was less than straight-forward. Sarah first gained a Bachelor’s in Business and Marketing and a Masters in Tourism Science and Territorial Management but bravely opted for a change in career – longing for the great outdoors. Work experience in pest control at Auckland Parks, as well as restoration work and wildlife monitoring on Tiritiri Matangi fortified her emerging interest in wildlife conservation. Her journey at Auckland Zoo started with volunteering on the carnivore team while she went on to complete Unitec’s zookeeping and animal management courses – soon after she joined our bird team and the rest is history!   

In 2020, Sarah applied for and was granted the Des Spittall Scholarship for Keeper Development from the Australasian Society of Zookeeping. The application criteria involved outlining a project that would bring more husbandry (animal care) skills to the individual keeper as well as their wider organisation. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 lockdowns, the scholarship was temporarily put on hold.

Thankfully, in 2023, Sarah was able to research other options and chose to travel to San Diego Zoo to visit their globally renowned Avian Propagation Centre’ – which is dedicated to bird incubation and rearing at a large scale.

During her time at Auckland Zoo, Sarah has been involved in our hatch and hand-rearing programmes with a variety of birds – both international and native species. Some of these have included birds such as kororā (little penguin), tīeke (North Island saddleback), Gouldian finches, lovebirds, Greater flamingo (to name a few!) and breed-for-release programmes for threatened or endangered species such as tara iti (New Zealand fairy tern), kākāriki karaka (orange-fronted parakeets), pāteke (brown teal) and North Island brown kiwi.

“Birds are fascinating to me as they’re so different from us. I’m a very detailed orientated person so I love getting involved in incubation and hand-rearing. It’s incredible to be able to transfer these skills to conserve vulnerable wildlife in the wild. For the past two years I’ve been part of an expert team hand-rearing hoiho chicks and treating them for avian diphtheria at Dunedin Wildlife Hospital – it’s such rewarding work!” explains Sarah.   

While the fundamentals of egg incubation remain the same – eggs must be kept at the right temperature and humidity, and turned so the embryo can receive vital nutrients - there can be massive variations between species. For example a Gouldian finch needs to be incubated for just 16 days, while a kiwi egg – one of the largest eggs produced when compared to body size by any bird, is currently incubated for 74-90 days. That being said, our curator of birds, Juan, is currently engaged in new research looking into the incubation parameters of kiwi eggs! The equipment and techniques used can also vary, as there is a variety of different incubators and protocols used from organisation to organisation.

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s Avian Propagation Centre first opened in the 1980s and breeds a variety of species for their two zoos – San Diego Zoo and San Diego Safari Park, as well as for other partner zoos. It requires five full time specialist staff to breed an incredible 300+ bird species – from hummingbirds to our very own kiwi.

The centre has three defined areas where particular species’ eggs are hatched and reared by Zoo staff, with other aviaries reserved for parent rearing, such as parrots.

Sarah explains, “The avian propagation centre has very strict protocols to ensure the health of the young birds and ensure no diseases are spread. The specialist team do not work with the zoo’s animals (as keepers) but are dedicated to breeding and hand-rearing chicks. In order to keep a high level of hygiene, uniforms and shoes are changed at the start and end of their shift. While the incubation process used here is very similar to our work at the Zoo, it was incredible to see it on a larger scale as well as a large variety of species that I haven’t worked with before. I was able to observe newly hatched chicks, as well as birds further along in their development.”

Certain bird species are known to ‘imprint’ at a young age (form attachments to people) which can be a challenge when birds are human-reared. The avian propagation team cover themselves completely from head to toe when caring for newly hatched chicks, to avoid being recognised by the birds. As the birds get older, they will be monitored remotely via CCTV cameras to ensure they are eating as they should. Once they have reached a particular age and weight, they will go on to join the other birds in their Zoo habitats or move to other zoos where appropriate as part of regional breeding programmes.

During her time in San Diego, Sarah also visited the San Diego Safari Park which has their own incubation room. Here she was able to see the endangered California condor – a very impressive vulture species up-close – which forms part of a Zoo breed-for-release programme.  

Late last year, two staff from the San Diego bird team journeyed to New Zealand to attend the kiwi incubation workshop and learn more about how we care for our national icon.

Sarah explains, “It’s wonderful being able to network with zoo colleagues from around the world and provides for better opportunities for knowledge sharing in the future. I’m grateful to the Australasian Society of Zookeeping for allowing me to have this opportunity and would certainly recommend it to any keepers looking to upskill in our field. I’m also very grateful to the staff of the Avian Propagation Centre of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance for the opportunity to spend time with them.”