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L.A. Zoo littered with new baby animals

Many creatures at the zoo are finding a new thing to do this summer: rearing offspring.

July 05, 2009|Carla Hall

The greater flamingos squawk like ducks as they go about their busy lives in an aviary at the Los Angeles Zoo. The pale pink birds root in the mud for bugs, skimming a rank-looking pond for mosquito larvae, and get into neck-looping fights with each other.

This summer, they also have another activity: child rearing. Amid the nearly three dozen pairs of the famously long, spindly pink legs totter two pairs of short black legs supporting fuzzy gray flamingo hatchlings -- one three weeks old and the other six weeks old.

The littlest sounds off with a chirpy trill. He or she -- the zoo doesn't know yet -- huddles under the long legs of its father, No. 33. The zoo bands the flamingos to distinguish them. The hatchling's father and mother, No. 30, are pros at parenting.

"Gosh, they've probably had at least five chicks," said flamingo keeper Cathy Christel.

Across the zoo, babies of different species are toddling, waddling, and jumping in pens and yards and stalls. A giraffe was born in April and another is expected any day. There are two Chacoan peccaries, a type of pig from South America, and a Japanese serow, a rare goat-antelope. A Mexican lance-headed rattlesnake, less than a month old, won't go on display until the zoo's new reptile house opens in 2011. But visitors can see a month-old gerenuk already standing straight up on outstretched slender legs as he browsed for leafy vegetation in a yard in the zoo's nursery.

Most hoof stock deliver in the spring, zoo staffers said. The nursery is full of babies being hand-reared because they are recovering from illnesses or their mothers can't do the job. In a shaded outdoor nursery stall, two red river hog piglets, their little bodies shaped like furry brown and yellow-striped watermelons, turn their glistening snouts toward Nancy Thomas, who is standing on the other side of a half door. Both were successfully treated for sepsis. "They're like big puppies," said veterinarian Curtis Eng. "They're very good jumpers."

In another outdoor yard, a delicate Speke's gazelle, barely a month old, was being hand-reared after its mother, in a well-meaning but overzealous round of grooming, nibbled the animal's ears off.

In the same yard wandered two peninsular pronghorns. The three-month-old males -- which resemble caramel-and-white deer -- chew visitors' shoelaces and lick their legs.

Breeding rituals vary around the zoo. But few are as quirky as those of the flamingos. They don't begin to breed until the group as a whole starts engaging in mating dances of wing salutes and head flagging.

The greater flamingos began their displaying in April. Mating followed, and they rapidly built nine nests -- raised mounds of dirt that look like flattened volcanoes, about a foot high. On those mounds, females laid their eggs.

The female picks her mate and the nest site, Christel said, but together couples build the nest and take turns incubating the eggs, which takes about a month.

"Maybe the female is on it when you come in in the morning," said Christel. "Then the male will take over in the afternoon."

Christel estimated that there were about 27 eggs in all. But only two birds hatched. Often eggs fall off the mounds and won't hatch. And inexperienced couples, alas, sometimes produce bad eggs. "They're ready to make a nest, but maybe the male didn't fertilize the egg properly," said Christel.

Once a bird has hatched, its parents sit on it for five days, taking turns feeding it a bloody mixture of food and nutrients.

Late last week, the exhibit's pungent stench -- a mixture of the shrimp gruel flamingos favor and the effluvia in which they bask -- came and went. Five flamingos were sitting on eggs on mounds. But four are overdue, Christel said, adding that she doubts any birds will hatch from them.

One, however, looks good, she said. The bird should hatch around July 17 -- bringing another baby to the zoo.


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