As a bird keeper at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, I get to see and do a lot of amazing things. On June 16, 2009, I got to participate in something I’ve always wanted to do: help save an endangered species by releasing captive-bred birds into the wild! Released were 16 juvenile light-footed clapper rails, 5 of which I had seen grow up from one-day-old hatchlings! Saying goodbye to these birds was not difficult, though, because I knew that they would assist in the recovery of their species here in San Diego County.
Light-footed clapper rails live in coastal wetlands from central California down to Baja California, Mexico. Due to the overdevelopment of their natural habitat, their numbers have dramatically decreased over the past century. Many organizations have been trying very hard to help save this species in many different ways. Besides habitat restoration, predatory control, population surveys, protecting nest sites, and creating artificial nests, there is also a managed-care breeding program.
Habitat loss has cut off the rail’s normal migration routes, thus creating a fragmented population. The breeding program helps prevent genetic bottlenecking within the population by taking individuals from one subpopulation, breeding them in managed care facilities, and releasing their offspring into new subpopulations. The Wild Animal Park, the Chula Vista Nature Center, and SeaWorld San Diego have been involved with this translocation and breeding program for many years now and have helped release over 200 juvenile clapper rails.
The San Elijo Lagoon near Encinitas, California, is home to one of the light-footed clapper rail subpopulations, and it was also where the release I participated in took place. Before we did the release, however, we had to get all of the birds ready. To do this, Michael Mace, the curator of birds at the Wild Animal Park, and I headed to the Chula Vista Nature Center. Even though our five release candidates were bred at the Wild Animal Park, they were moved to the Center when they were about six weeks old so that they could get more acclimated to what life in the wild would be like.
At the Center, we also met up with representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and SeaWorld San Diego. I was unsure of what my role would be in the whole process, so I was very surprised when I was asked to help catch up the juveniles from their large outdoor holding pens. Catching the birds proved to be quite difficult because they were very fast and were able to hide amazingly well in even the smallest amount of vegetation! Once all of the birds were caught up, they were weighed and then banded on their right leg with a numbered aluminum band so that each individual could be identified in the future. They also received a gold band on their left leg, which represents that they were released in 2009.
Now that the young rails were ready for release, we put them into transport boxes and drove to the San Elijo Lagoon. Once all members of the Clapper Rail Recovery Team had arrived, we walked down a short trail to the lagoon. At the edge of the water, we lined up half of the carriers so that eight of the clapper rails could be released at the same time. At the count of three, we tilted our transport boxes forward and opened the tabs, thereby freeing the birds that we had spent so much time raising and protecting.
This was my first time ever seeing a clapper rail fly and only my third time seeing them in the wild, so I was absolutely in awe of them. Each one flew out in different directions until they found a spot that looked safe enough to land in. Once they made it to the ground, they disappeared into the vegetation and were not seen again while we were there. After the last eight juveniles were released and had vanished into the marsh, we couldn’t help but applaud, for we knew all of our efforts could possibly prevent another species from disappearing from our planet.
Kim Roth is a keeper at the Wild Animal Park.
Update July 14, 2009: Clapper rails hatched at the Wild Animal Park in 2007 and released the same year have been sighted with three chicks this past week in the wild!