Birmingham Zoo staff pursue conservation projects around the world, close to home
by Sydney Cromwell
Staff at the Birmingham Zoo take care of animals from the four corners of the world. Through its Passion into Conservation Action (PiCA) grants, the zoo also sends its staff back out to those four corners, to help conserve and study endangered species and ecosystems.
Since 2012, the PiCA program has funded several international projects: protecting giraffes in Namibia, Pallas’s cats in Mongolia, orangutans in Malaysia and giant otters in Brazil and Guyana, to name a few. Closer to home, zoo staff have used PiCA grants for conservation and research of Alabama’s black bears, eastern indigo snakes, piping plovers and oyster reefs.
“It’s just a tremendous benefit for keepers to have this opportunity because we can talk all day to guests about our animals and about conservation, but it’s another thing to actually go out and do the work,” said Jessie Griswold, the lead animal care professional at the zoo’s Animal Health Center.
Conservation and Special Projects Coordinator Terra Manasco, who launched and manages the PiCA program, said the grants not only benefit conservation, they also give zoo employees the chance to pursue dream projects.
“People really believe in what they’re doing here,” she said.
This year, the PiCA program will fund two projects on the zoo’s campus and one in Florida, all with long-term benefits for the birds, bees and under the sea.
At the Animal Health Center, Jessie Griswold cares for all types of animals. But birds are her favorite.
Prior to joining the zoo in 2010, she worked at the Alabama Wildlife Center, a wild bird rehabilitation center at Oak Mountain State Park, for six years. Her first PiCA grant project sent her to South Africa to work with vulture conservation. Griswold’s second was a two-year study of window collisions by Birmingham’s bird population, which has since become a permanent zoo conservation project.
And her third PiCA grant, funded this year, will be installing a radio telemetry tower at the zoo to track migratory birds, bats and even insects flying overhead. The tower will be part of the Motus Wildlife Tracking System, a project to gather migratory data for use by researchers around the world.
The tower Griswold installs will be the first in Alabama, which is positioned between the Mississippi and Atlantic “flyways” that North American migratory birds travel between their breeding and wintering grounds. While the Birmingham Zoo won’t be doing any bird tagging, just aiming the tower at the sky will help to fill in gaps in the picture of bird migration.
Tagging and tracking birds via radio tag can help scientists learn about population, migration patterns, lifespan and even how climate change and other environmental pressures might change bird behaviors.
“A lot of the species that are in decline are starting to be heavily researched, so having Motus stations widespread opens up the door for more information on some species that we don’t know a lot about,” Griswold said.
The Motus station will cost about $3,000 to install, Griswold said. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said there have been delays in gaining the needed equipment. She plans to install the station near the zoo entrance.
“A lot of zoological facilities are starting to jump on board because it’s a fairly inexpensive project to do and to actually be involved in conservation,” she said.
While the station will contribute to international research for years, Griswold is also hoping the data will help her gain a fuller picture of Birmingham’s avian population.
“I want to know what else is flying over. I have an idea through my window collision monitoring of what’s flying through and when,” she said.
Her Bird Safe Birmingham project tracks window collisions, and Griswold has found everything from tiny hummingbirds to songbirds to a peregrine falcon, an unusual sighting in Birmingham. These window strikes often happen when birds, migrating at night or in bad weather conditions, get drawn toward city lights and can’t perceive the glass.
“It’s not necessarily the height of the building or the number of tall buildings that we have, it’s just the sheer amount of glass and light,” she said.
Griswold has put up dotted window decals on some of the zoo’s glass enclosures, which makes the glass more visible to birds. She said she would like to expand the Bird Safe Birmingham project and work with groups like the Alabama Audubon to do more work in preventing window collisions and habitat loss around the city.
“This is not just happening at cities, this is happening at people’s homes, and there are things you can do to mitigate that and help birds,” she said.
BLOOMS FOR BUTTERFLIES
The zoo is already home to honeybee colonies and a monarch butterfly waystation, but Terra Manasco’s PiCA grant project is the first phase of making the zoo even more pollinator-friendly.
Purple coneflowers, milkweed and other native perennials will be popping up around the zoo, including the Children’s Zoo and the front entrance, to create “pollinator islands,” Manasco said. The monarch waystation — another past PiCA project — has plants that support all stages of the orange-and-black butterfly’s life as it migrates through Alabama, but these pollinator islands will also feed other native butterfly and bee species.
“It’s just critical that we create habitat and no longer rely on just wild habitat,” she said, as plants like milkweed are often destroyed in favor of species that aren’t considered weeds.
“Having an oasis and a safe haven for our animals that are traveling, or animals that are permanent, to use these habitats that we’re sustaining is critical to the species,” she said.
Even when the summer blooms fade and the monarch butterflies migrate away, Manasco said dead plants in the pollinator islands will still have a role to play.
“We’re not going to be cutting down the dead stuff in the winter because those are important habitats for wild bees and other insects we need,” she said.
This is Manasco’s second PiCA project. Four years after helping launch the grant program, she traveled to Belize to study how jaguars travel and respond to human disturbance.
Her lifelong love of the big cat species counterbalanced the sometimes-grueling work of placing trail cameras through miles of hot, humid jungle. Manasco even returned to Belize on her own to help finish the research.
The pollinator project will take place over three years, Manasco said, with this year’s pollinator plantings being PiCA-funded.
“My main goal is, let’s establish the milkweed because it takes a long time for that to get established and secure,” she said.
Next year, she plans to continue developing the pollinator islands and reopen the zoo’s butterfly house. Manasco also wants to set up citizen science programs so volunteers can participate in projects like monarch butterfly tagging.
“The goal is to get gardens throughout the Birmingham area so there’s all these little microhabitats that are connecting, that allow these animals to have their life cycle intact,” Manasco said.
In the 20 years that he has been scuba diving, Jesse Daniels has seen “shocking” changes in the health of coral reefs. They are threatened by increasing temperatures, ocean pollution, human damage and, within the past 10 years, a new killer—stony coral tissue loss disease.
“Corals were already struggling before this disease came through, so we don’t quite know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Daniels, the zoo’s interpretation and onsite programs manager, is an avid diver and former saltwater aquarium hobbyist. In August, he made his second PiCA grant–funded trip to the Florida Keys, spending three weeks planting and monitoring young coral on the Florida Reef Tract.
Stony coral tissue loss disease has been identified on reefs throughout the Caribbean since it was first spotted in 2014, killing populations of brain, star, maze and other types of coral. Groups like the Florida Aquarium, Mote Marine Lab and Coral Restoration Foundation have rescued wild coral and created greenhouses and underwater coral “nurseries” to rebuild their populations.
“With the reduction of corals, they support so much other life that when you lose corals, you lose overall biodiversity,” Daniels said.
There are both immediate and distant goals for the corals being grown in these nurseries. In the short-term, acropora corals (like elkhorn and staghorn) can be replanted on the reefs because they are immune to stony coral tissue loss disease.
Acropora coral are critically endangered, so replanting their populations is important for its own sake. But Daniels said acropora may also be able to keep Florida’s reef ecosystems from collapsing while other coral species are being ravaged by stony coral tissue loss.
“Unfortunately, those corals don’t continue to grow. You need hard corals to keep the reef healthy,” Daniels said.
The hope is that at some point the disease will no longer have new corals to infect and will disappear, making it safe to replant some of the soft corals that are dying off.
“It’s kind of a wait-and-see game right now,” he said.
Some of the corals being raised in these nurseries will also be used by the Ocean Acidification lab at Mote, studying the effects of climate change and ocean acidity on reefs.
During Daniels’s first trip to the reef tract in 2020 — which he managed to complete before COVID-19 restrictions began — he helped with coral reproduction. This year, he worked with I.CARE, a Mote Lab partner, to lead dive trips for replanting.
Daniels also helped with monitoring the coral that has already been replanted, as well as biodiversity studies of the species on the reef.
“Coral reefs support about 25% of all ocean life,” Daniels said, from sea cucumbers and crabs to young game fish.
After his PiCA grant work has ended, Daniels isn’t done with coral restoration. He hopes to keep helping with replanting, perhaps even organizing more dive trips.
“If we’re getting people down there to support the dive shops that are doing this work and supporting the organizations that are doing this work, that means ultimately this will continue,” he said.
Learn more about the PiCA program and previous grant recipients here.
Main article image courtesy of Jesse Daniels.