As DWA guests begin their visit in the Orinoco Rainforest, they might notice a rather mysterious place, beyond the waterfall and behind the tall coconut palm that grows on Monkey Island. A section of the rainforest has been isolated from the rest of it by aviary netting. This very tall area is shrouded with vines, so its inhabitants are often not easily seen. Many aquarium guests do not give it much attention, but the international community of zoos and bird breeders has been regarding this enclosure with increasing interest as each year passes.
Every year since 2007, two female Andean cocks-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruviana) have hatched chicks in this enclosure. As of March 2010, a total of 22 (between the two females) have hatched, with 16 living. Nothing like this has happened anywhere else. One bird hatched at a private collection in New Jersey in the 1950s, but it died before fledging, so did the ones that hatched at a British private collection in the 1960s, and the National, Fort Worth, and Bronx Zoos in the 1970s. Full success was not achieved until 1979, when one reached independence at the Houston Zoo. Houston Zoo was successful with three more in 1987 and 1988, and San Diego Zoo accomplished one complete success in 1988. Until 2007, the last Andean cock-of-the-rock hatched in the US was one at Houston, which did not survive, in 1989.
Outside the US, success has been achieved at the Chiba Zoo (Japan), the Wuppertal Zoo (Germany), the Cali Zoo (Colombia), and private aviaries in Holland and Chile. In all cases, only a single female bred at a given time, and no collection has approached the number hatched and surviving as the DWA.
Until 2008, when a male bird was hatched and raised at the DWA, the Guiana cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola rupicola) had never been hatched in captivity, though eggs had been laid once, in a private collection in Italy in 1965. Thus the DWA’s young bird is a world captive first breeding.
There are only two species of cocks-of-the-rock, and both have always been treasured collector’s items in zoos and aviaries. The Guiana cock-of-the-rock is found in Tropical Lowland Forests across an extensive area of northeastern South America. It was first brought into captivity outside of its native range in 1866, when two arrived at the London Zoo. While this species was always only infrequently imported, and considered a highlight of any collection, it was exhibited by quite a number of places over the years until the 1960s, when Brazil, the major source of specimens, prohibited their export. Since then, only a few have been maintained. When the Venezuelan Government granted a special permit for the DWA to import a group in 2001, they were, and remain, the only Rupicola rupicola outside of South America. They are presently off exhibit in a special, densely planted aviary. Rupicola means “rock dweller” in Latin. Neither species normally spends much time around rocks, but the females do build their clay and fiber nests among boulders or in caves, usually near water. Nest building began at the DWA in 2004, though eggs were not laid until 2008. Artificial caves were provided, however, the successful nest was constructed on a wall, near a ceiling.
Although there is mention of an Andean cock-of-the-rock at the Amsterdam Zoo some time before 1888, the first truly documented arrival of this species in captivity was on December 9, 1941, when one dozen arrived at the Bronx Zoo, the result of a specially arranged expedition to Colombia. True to their name, Andean cocks-of-the-rock are found along the Andes, in humid subtropical forests from Venezuela to Bolivia. Again, while they were always highly prized, a number of US zoos were able to exhibit them over several decades, until the early 1990s, when changes in the regulations of both the Bolivian and US governments ended importations. The birds at the DWA were received in 2004, after lengthy and complicated applications for permits from both the US and Peru. The permits were obtained through the cooperation of Peru’s National Zoo, Parque de las Leyendas, in Lima, with which the DWA has engaged in various conservation projects.
Since 2006, Rupicola peruviana have lived in the partitioned area along the side of the Orinoco Rainforest. They are often seen more than heard. The males display throughout most of the year, producing amazingly powerful screeches and growls, while posturing on branches. Sometimes these brilliant red-orange birds are very visible during these courtship rituals. The chocolate-brown females are much harder to spot. There are two places to catch a glimpse of them from a distance – one area is on the bridge between Howler Junction and the toucan feeding station and the other, from below, is in front of the new exhibit for Caiman lizards, if one stares up and over it.
This semi-privacy has served these birds well. Both breeding females have selected caves, which they have used year after year, building nests out of mud and natural and artificial fibers. These nests are continually monitored with dark-vision video cameras. In 2007, each female reared a male chick. In 2008, 12 chicks were produced between the two of them, of which nine survived. In 2009, three of the five chicks hatched were reared. So far, in 2010, three have hatched, of which two are living now, one from each female.
Over the years, a protocol has been developed for raising cock-of-the-rock chicks. Since there are three males in the aviary, chicks that fledge out of the cave are prone to aggression from males that are not their sire. On the other hand, chicks that have been fed by the female (the only parent that cares for the chick) display optimal development, so the young birds are removed after two weeks for hand-rearing in the nursery.
Two spotted eggs are laid each time and take 28 days to hatch. This is an unusually long incubation period for a perching bird and the chicks are far more well-developed than most when they hatch. This year’s two chicks are progressing well in the nursery. In the meantime, one female has been spending time on the nest each day, busily adding mud and fiber, so a new clutch of eggs is anticipated shortly.
It appears that cocks-of-the-rock reach adulthood in 18 months. A number of birds hatched in previous years at the DWA are in a spacious off-exhibit facility which they share with two unrelated females that were imported at the same time as their parents. Two other DWA-hatched males have been sent to the San Diego Zoo. The only other cocks-of-the-rock in the US are at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park, imported in 2003. It is hoped that birds hatched at The Dallas World Aquarium will soon be producing offspring themselves.