July 22, 2008, 1:10AM
Houston Zoo welcomes birth of rare parrot
By MAGGIE GALEHOUSE
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
On May 28, a tiny St. Vincent Amazon parrot pushed its way out of an egg at the Houston Zoo.
The egg was the size of a large chestnut. The bird was 3 inches tall, with bulging eyes that would take another nine days to open and skin covered with a whitish down.
Christopher Holmes, a zoo supervisor in the bird department, was the first person to lay eyes on the rare parrot. Since then, the two have been inseparable.
Holmes, 26, says that he is the chick's "primary hand rearer." But let's call it what it is.
"The chick goes with me everywhere," says Holmes, who started volunteering at the zoo when he was 14 and is working on a bachelor's degree in anthropology at the University of Houston. "In the beginning, I was feeding it every two hours from 5 a.m. till midnight. I did that for 16 days."
For the first five weeks, the chick lived in a blue Coleman cooler, retrofitted with a heating element to keep it warm. Now, the bird lives in a large, open-air brooder — basically, a clear plastic box with a special lid.
Holmes named the bird Vincent, although no one knows if it's male or female. Soon, the zoo will send off one of Vincent's feathers for a DNA test to determine its gender.
"It's very hard to tell the sex," Holmes says. "The males and females are the same size, and every St. Vincent Amazon parrot is a different color."
Not yet 2 months old, Vincent has gotten much better-looking with age.
Incredibly, Vincent is almost full-grown. Just 15 grams at birth, the chick now weighs about a pound and stands a little more than a foot high. Most of Vincent's feathers have already come in, with brown dominating the chest and shoulders, green, yellow and cobalt blue on the tail, and bright orange on the bend of the wing.
"Come on, little one," says Holmes, lifting the chick out of the brooder and coaxing it into a smaller box for feeding.
Vincent watches Holmes mix the food, a fine powder of grains cut with 107-degree water. After Vincent is settled in the feeding bin — sort of a high chair for baby birds — Holmes clasps the back of Vincent's beak between his thumb and forefinger, tips back the head and pushes the warm formula into the chick's mouth with a syringe.
"That's how you elicit the feeding response," says Holmes, who has hand-raised macaws, flamingos, pigeons, kingfishers and King penguins. "It simulates the parent putting its beak over the chick."
Some of the formula drips onto Vincent's chest. Holmes quickly cleans it off.
"Just like a child," he says. "You've got to wipe the face."
Vincent is the third St. Vincent Amazon parrot born at the Houston Zoo. In 1972, the zoo made history with the first captive hatch of the species in the world.
In the wild, this particular parrot is found in only one place: the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, a slip of land 11 miles wide and 18 miles long, northeast of Venezuela and west of Barbados. It is part of a cluster of islands known as St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Because its habitat is so small, the St. Vincent Amazon is considered a threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
On top of that, the bird has a spectacularly slow reproductive rate. Vincent's parents, Patty and Buccament, had their first offspring in 1999. Vincent is their second chick.
"We're the only zoo in North America that houses the species," says Holmes, who has traveled to St. Vincent twice to help count the birds for the biennial census. "There are about 800 left in the wild."
Today, the Houston Zoo has seven of the rare parrots. The zoo's first St. Vincent Amazon, a female also named Vincent, was acquired in 1967. Holmes named this year's chick in her honor.
The zoo hopes that the chick will help supplement the captive-breeding program.
But for now, Vincent is busy being a toddler.
"We're still learning how to sit on our perch," Holmes says with a laugh after Vincent topples off the low-slung wooden bar in the brooder.
The chick makes a happy, gurgling sound, something between a coo and a mew, when its belly starts to get full.
"Vincent has different vocalizations for different things," Holmes says. "In the very beginning, it sounded like a squeaky toy."
The chick has also started to stretch its wings. Holmes suspects that Vincent's first flight will be sometime in the next few weeks, when all of the feathers have grown in. The feathers begin as pins that eventually grow longer and open.
"As the blood recedes from the feather shafts," Holmes explains, "they start to break open."
Sometimes the chick preens off its own feather shafts. Sometimes Holmes does it.
Despite Vincent's good health, it may be quite a while before the zoo introduces the bird to the public.
Vincent developed in an incubator. Because of the rarity of the species in captivity, the zoo pulled the egg the morning it was laid; Vincent hatched 28 days later. And because the chick is being hand-raised, it needs additional time to acclimate to other birds.
There's no rush. St. Vincent Amazon parrots have a life span of 50 to 60 years. After breeding season ends, zoo visitors can see Vincent's parents, along with Vincent's sister and her mate. They should be back on exhibit in early August.
In the meantime, Vincent continues to thrive.
Already, the chick is munching on dry food. Scattered Cheerios and part of an ear of corn sit at the bottom of the brooder.
Vincent still goes home with Holmes every night, but it's nothing like it was in the beginning. For the first five weeks, Holmes' life revolved around Vincent's strict feeding schedule. Now, he feeds the chick three times a day.
These meals can get quite interesting, with Vincent preening, flapping and gurgling for the duration.
"OK, we're done with you," says Holmes, lifting the noisy, just-fed chick out of the feeding box and putting it back in the brooder. "We get a little glint in our eye, cock our head to see what we can do to get into trouble and start trying to get away."
On day 80 of Vincent's life, the chick will leave Holmes to live in an off-site area at the zoo, in a cage next to two other St. Vincent Amazon parrots.
As close as he's grown to his charge, Holmes understands the importance of the move and trusts that he and Vincent will always have a special bond.
"It's for socialization," Holmes says. "Vincent has to learn how to be a bird."