This week, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo celebrated the hatching of its 50th kori bustard chick. This little one represents a great milestone in a bigger story of protecting this impressive bird species from dwindling numbers.
Kori bustards are the heaviest flying bird with males weighing about 40 pounds. Because of their size, they like to stay on the ground as much as possible, feeding on everything from seeds and berries to insects and small mammals. Found on the grassy savannas of Africa, this species is suffering from habitat fragmentation, human encroachment, and hunting for food (kori bustards are also known as the “Christmas turkey”).
“I had an immediate attraction to koris. They are such beautiful and majestic birds. And they really have remarkable personalities—keepers at zoos who work with kori bustards fall in love with them immediately,” said Sara Hallager, National Zoo biologist and coordinator of the kori bustard Species Survival Plan (SSP). “There was very little known about them when I started, and the more I learn about them, the more I admire them.”
Less than 25 years ago, kori bustards had never bred in captivity. After success in Germany, the Dallas Zoo became the first zoo in North America to breed kori bustards, and the Phoenix and National Zoo soon followed.
With the increase of the kori population in North America, an unexpected partnership evolved. Kori bustard feathers are coveted by people who tie fly-fishing lures; the texture, size, pattern and ability to work with other feathers are considered perfect. So perfect in fact, that in the 1990s, a single kori feather could be sold for $500. Birds in the wild were being killed to meet this demand.
Working with the SSP, a feather donation system was established where zoos would collect naturally molted kori feathers and mail them for free to a distribution center, where they would then be mailed to fly tiers. By flooding the U.S. market with free feathers, the demand for feathers from wild birds has greatly decreased.
However, Hallager is still cautious about the ultimate fate of kori bustards in the wild.
“While the IUCN Red List lists kori bustards as Least Concern, nobody has really studied the population numbers so it is hard to tell,” she says. “Bustard populations all over the world are declining, some with only 300 individuals left. Kori bustards are being exported live, being poached or legally hunted for food. It’s a big bird and there are lots of hungry people.”
With all this in mind, zoos are leading the way in research of kori bustards in zoos and in the wild. The hard work and dedication of keepers and staff will help protect this charismatic species for future generations.