The Secret Life of the Zoo 10/08/2016

Breeding birds at Chester Zoo

Our penguin and parrot team manager Andy Woolham has over thirty years' experience breeding and rearing birds at the zoo but his passion for our feathered friends didn't start here.

Growing up, his home was always filled with animals; kestrels in the garden, snakes in the living room and, for a short period, a crocodile in the bathroom! His Dad had a mini collection at home, which included lots of aviaries filled with exotic, colourful and often noisy birds, so from a young age he started to build on his knowledge of birds. 

Andy with his two brothers
Andy with his two brothers

Here he tells us more about the three stages of successful bird breeding...

“Since I started working here we have always been very successful at breeding endangered birds. Of course as a bird keeper you don’t just have to make sure the birds mate - we often have to incubate eggs and then rear the chicks until they are ready to stand on their own two feet. This whole process can be a long and emotional one but when you are successful at rearing an endangered chick and see it through to adulthood it’s immensely rewarding."

The Breeding

“Breeding a bird is not an easy process. Some birds will pair with the mate we pick for them, other birds are fussier and some, such as parrots, have the cognitive ability to form likes and dislikes - including potential partners! When this happens breeding can take years and, for the Philippine cockatoo, it actually took nearly two decades to find the perfect pairing.

“After years of not finding a mate for our fussy female I started thinking outside of the box and created my own dating parlour. I had a female cockatoo one side of a corridor and six males on the other, providing the female with the opportunity to go past each male and pick the one she liked. This particular female had terrible taste in men. The first male she picked was too aggressive towards her and the second was scared of her but, on her third attempt, she picked the perfect partner. They were a fantastic couple and we went on to rear three healthy chicks."

Andy Woolham with two Philippine cockatoo
Andy with two Philippine cockatoo


“With many animals in the zoo, once there is a successful breeding you can just let nature take its course but with birds we sometimes need to offer an extra helping hand. If we leave eggs on the nest then there is risk that the egg could be broken or even not incubated by the parents. When you are dealing with endangered birds, where breeding happens so infrequently, we have to remove that risk and so we remove eggs and incubate them mechanically.

“We have done this with many of our bird species over the years but a recent example of this was with the Baer’s pochard. This species of duck is listed by the International Union for the Conservation Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered and it’s believed there are less than 200 individuals left in the wild, meaning that the species faces a huge threat of extinction. For the past few years we have played a vital role in the long-term survival of Baer’s pochard and a big part of our success is incubating the eggs and artificially rearing ducklings correctly.

Baer pochard ducklings at Chester Zoo
Baer's pochard

“The eggs are removed from the nests when they are first laid and we take them to our incubation room. Here the team weigh and measure the eggs and turn them daily throughout the 26 day incubation period. By doing this we can monitor the eggs during incubation and track their weight loss (all eggs lose weight during incubation). We also shine a bright light through their shells to check how the embryos are developing – a technique known as candling - and it’s really fascinating to see the chicks grow inside the egg!"

The rearing

“Once eggs have hatched in our incubation room it’s imperative we get as many as we can through the early weeks of their life and so we give them a helping hand. Sometimes that means rearing them collectively in our rearing room, which we do with the Baer’s pochard ducklings, but sometimes the chicks are so weak and vulnerable they have to be hand-reared.

“I’ve hand-reared lots of chicks but the first one I ever reared is the one I will always remember. We were trying to breed condors to boost the population of this endangered bird – a species that had never bred at the zoo before - and with no internet in those days and not knowing anybody else who’d bred them, we had to use our instincts and experience.

Baer pochard ducklings

“It was that very first egg that was extra special for me. We incubated it correctly and, once it hatched, I took the chick home with me so I could keep a close eye on her. I hand-reared her in my bedroom feeding her several times a day. Everything was going well until she caught a bacterial infection and refused to eat. She lost half her body weight in a week and didn’t think she would survive but, as a bird lover, I knew I had to do my very best to keep her alive. I fed her every hour of the day and night until she slowly started gaining weight and eventually pulled through. Nearly thirty years on she’s still alive and well now and lives in a private collection in Wales.

“There is such a sense of elation when you successfully breed an endangered bird. You use your skills, intuition and sometimes creativity to make sure you get as many chicks as possible to hatch and go on to reach adulthood and it’s those very same techniques that we develop here, that also help bird species survive in the wild. Our keepers travel around the world to our conservation partners sharing their skills and knowledge.

“I’m very proud that I work with birds every day and hopefully play my part in our attempts to conserve some of the world’s rarest bird species.”