A rare bird, crane chick is hatched at city zoo Native to southern Africa, species is endangered

April 04, 1996|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The Nasty family of Druid Hill Park is proud to announce its newest arrival a 6-inch, 169-gram baby boy with dark brown feathers and an inch-long beak. They could use a little help with the name, though. For now, he's No. 960538.

The Nastys are a wattled crane couple, members of an endangered species native to southern Africa, with 8,000 to 10,000 still in existence. Their chick, which hatched Sunday at the Baltimore Zoo, was conceived through artificial insemination as part of the zoo's Crane Conservation Center breeding program.

Now 5 days old, the wattled crane chick has soft, dark brown feathers and is walking. He has tiny wattles, the appendages that hang below its throat. When an adult is angry, excited or scared, the wattles get longer, a sure sign to back off.

The chick is growing about 10 percent each day and should reach its full height of 5 1/2 feet in about 15 weeks. His keeper, Eileen Rombach, weighs him each day and adjusts his meal of bugs, crickets and meal worms. For the time being, he will go nameless. "His official number is 960538, but sooner or later he will probably end up with a name," said James Ballance, the zoo's senior bird keeper.

That's not the only thing this chick has to deal with. It seems he comes from a bit of a dysfunctional family. They don't call his parents the Nastys for nothing.

"They have a major attitude," Mr. Ballance said.

Particularly the male.

"We call him Nasty, because that's what he is," Ms. Rombach said. "He'll try to kill you."

Wattled cranes mate for life, and this pair seems to be very devoted to each other -- and fairly hostile to anyone who comes between them.

"They get along very well," said Steve Sarro, the zoo's curator of birds. "That's part of the reason they're aggressive. Tightly bonded pairs behave very aggressively."

Tightly bonded they may be, but for some reason, they wouldn't mate. Maybe they're just good friends, puzzled zoo keepers joked.

Mr. Nasty seems to be the problem. "We're not sure if he can't, or he won't," Mr. Ballance said.

Zoo keepers were more than willing to give the couple a little help, but Mr. Nasty didn't seem to appreciate it. The semen-collection process, which normally calls for two workers, required an extra person just to hold the bird's beak. Mr. Nasty is a fighter, and Mr. Ballance, who drew beak duty, has the holes in his jeans to prove it. "You get a beak 8 inches long stabbing at you, it's not very comfortable," he said.

For the time being, the zoo keepers' main worry is that little No. 960538 doesn't get too attached to them. A phenomenon called imprinting, in which a baby animal identifies with its human keeper more than its species if it has primary contact with the human as it grows, is particularly pronounced in cranes.

"It no longer thinks it's a crane. It thinks it's a person," Mr. Sarro said.

Pub Date: 4/04/96

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