A"Beak Job" is not Just for Looks

Sherry Rind


Living in a quiet comer of Woodland Park Zoo's African Savanna, Regret Egret and Houdini were often the subject of questions and discussion among zoo-goers. Could these really be cattle egrets? Was there something wrong with them or were their upper beaks supposed to look broken off? After all, animal life can take many strange forms and these birds did not behave as if there were anything wrong with them. And zoos do not exhibit disabled creatures, do they?

Indeed they do. In November, 1982 two cattle egrets with broken beaks arrived on breeding loan from Brookfield Zoo. How the injuries occurred is a mystery. One bird's beak was broken just below the nostrils, leaving three stubby prongs. The other bird's beak was broken off at the tip so that the remaining portion was slightly split and upturned. This latter bird, who was named Houdini because of his tendency to fly out of the exhibit, could eat and preen fairly well. The first bird, however, could not pick up food from the ground and could not preen. Regret Egret, so named for his regrettable problem, was specially fed. Keepers put bits of commercial feline diet on top of a scrub brush or tossed them onto tall grass so that Regret could scoop up the pieces with his lower bill. Eating was a slow process. Unlike Houdini, he could not pick up mealworms and crickets. He got just enough to eat and would certainly not grow plump. Both birds were also given "insect supplement" and vitamins.

Cattle egrets, Bulbulcus ibis, have the long legs and hunched look of all members of the heron family. They are white and carry a head plume of long, single feathers of a reddish brown color. Thicker set than other herons, they look a little wild-eyed and grumpy because of the plume. The egrets feed on insects and larvae disturbed by cattle and other grazing animals, walking fearlessly among the hooves or perching on backs. Sometimes they even follow man's plows and hunt for insects in the newly turned dirt.

The cattle egret is that rare animal: a success story. Because of its relationship with domestic cattle, it thrives on the worldwide spread of agriculture, unlike most birds. Originally found only in the hottest regions of Africa and Asia, cattle egrets were spotted in South America's British Guiana in 1930. They spread south and as far north as Canada. They began to settle in Australia in 1948 and moved on to New Zealand. In Europe they can be found in south Spain and Portugal but they stay away from Central Europe where it is thought that they would not be able to find enough to eat during the cold winters. These birds demonstrate how a certain amount of adaptability will ensure survival. Perhaps it was due to this adaptability that Regret lived as long as he did.

Being unable to preen, Regret was not the tidiest looking bird. Zoo keepers did what they could for him, keeping him and Houdini in an exhibit away from the other egrets and bringing them indoors for the colder.part of the winter. Despite the special care, Regret started looking worse this past winter. A little extra bedraggled by the rain, he sometimes became the target of Houdini's aggression. He was still thin. If he did not build up some reserves, his health and even his life might be endangered. What to do? Well, people who lose their teeth get false teeth to enable them to eat normally. So Regret Egret would get a false beak.


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