Patagonia Park Welcomes Darwin’s Rhea Chicks

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The newest rhea chicks at Patagonia Park. Photo: Cristian Saucedo

Patagonia Park is excited to announce some special new additions to our ever-growing wildlife family! During the 2016 austral spring (October through December), we welcomed twenty-five newly hatched Darwin’s rhea chicks to our Rhea Breeding Center, marking a key milestone in an exciting rewilding program which hopes to introduce over 100 new birds to the park’s small wild rhea population.

A relative of the ostrich, the Darwin’s rhea (also known as the Lesser rhea, ñandu or choique), is a regionally endangered species. With an estimated 25 wild birds residing within Patagonia Park’s boundaries, and a long history of threats from livestock, dogs, fencing and poaching, the rhea are in dire need of protection and restoration. In 2015, the Patagonia Park wildlife team set out to reverse the current negative trend by launching a Darwin’s Rhea Conservation Program and Breeding Center. The program’s main objective is to spearhead the recovery of the threatened species in order to avoid a local extinction. The Center’s first group of chicks just recently reached adulthood and, in early September, the first nest was discovered in the Breeding Center, made by the male rhea named Ojos (eyes). The other three males followed suit, creating their nests and beginning their incubation periods throughout the early austral spring. The female birds laid more eggs after the males had begun their incubation, which the wildlife team rescued and transported to an artificial incubator with the hope that some would hatch under artificial conditions.

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Patagonia Park’s Darwin’s Rhea Breeding Center. Photo: Alison Kelman

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Darwin’s rhea egg (non-viable). Photo: Alison Kelman

In mid-October, the first chicks hatched from the first group of eggs in the artificial incubator. Others followed suit, resulting in a total of 25 healthy chicks produced by the end of the breeding season, both through natural and artificial incubation. As the number of chicks at the Center’s grows, the program will soon expand to a new enclosure in a different section of Patagonia Park. This new home will provide a place for the birds to grow, acclimatize and prepare for release once they start to mature.

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Puesto Nandu. Photo: Alison Kelman

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Photo: Alison Kelman

The adult rheas at the Center are just now maturing, meaning that the fertility and viability of their eggs and chicks will keep increasing each year. Wild rheas typically reach maturity at three years, however the rhea chicks at the Breeding Center successfully reached maturity at two years, likely do to the nutritious diet of clover and alfalfa supplied by the Center. This season, as the birds were still very young, some of the eggs produced were infertile and some chicks were not viable. That said, many healthy chicks did hatch this season and we are confident that next season, the numbers and survival rates will keep increasing. Male rheas routinely mate with multiple females and the females quickly lay eggs, which means we will not be lacking for eggs anytime soon.

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Photo: Alison Kelman

Because this program is one of the first of its kind, it has been a learning process, requiring adaptive management. Our wildlife director, Cristian Saucedo, is in regular contact with rhea experts from Argentina, North America, the UK and beyond in order to hone our efforts and methods, and ensure the success of the species. The park’s rheas have become popular ambassadors, helping to foster ties with local schools, border police, the Chilean army, and wildlife biologists from around the world. This unique bird is an icon of the Patagonian steppe and a key megafauna of the future Patagonia National Park. We look forward to 2017 as a year of continued growth and prosperity for this groundbreaking rewilding program.

Learn more about the Darwin’s Rhea: Endangered Native Species of Patagonia: the Lesser Rhea)

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