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International team of conservationists hand-rear blue-eyed ground-dove chick

A team of British, Brazilian and American conservationists has successfully hand-reared a blue-eyed ground dove, offering new hope for the critically endangered species.

Working in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, the team carefully incubated an egg taken from the wild under licence and, when it hatched, painstakingly fed the chick by hand. The efforts paid off, and the chick becomes only the third of its kind to ever be reared in human care.

The blue-eyed ground dove was a species shrouded in mystery, with no confirmed records for more than 70 years, until it was rediscovered in 2015.

It is found in the Cerrado biome of Brazil, a diverse savanna ecosystem decimated by the expansion of cattle pasture and crops. With a known population of only around 15 individuals in the wild, the species is at serious risk of extinction, and is listed as critically endangered on the global red list — the highest level of threat.

Since its discovery, conservation organisation SAVE Brasil, together with regional authorities, have established a reserve and a state park. However, the species remains vulnerable to threats including fires made more intense because of climate change.

Now, a team of conservationists from Chester Zoo, SAVE Brasil, Parque das Aves, Instituto Claravis, Toledo Zoo and Bronx Zoo have joined forces to provide a lifeline for the species.

In 2023, in a world first, the team hand-reared two blue-eyed ground doves - a brother and sister. This year, to add vital genetic diversity to the recovery efforts, two eggs were taken from the nest of a second pair, under licence from the Brazilian agency for biodiversity conservation, Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade. One contained a stillborn embryo but, happily, the other egg was fertile and a healthy chick hatched from it.

Using techniques refined with other species of doves, the team fed the chick a diet that mimics the crop milk regurgitated by adult doves for their young. The chick grew quickly and will join the other two as the nucleus of an insurance population — a population in human care to safeguard against the risk of extinction.

As the population is so small, only a few eggs can be taken each year, but the team hopes to repeat their success and, little by little, establish breeding pairs in secure aviaries, producing chicks which can be used to reinforce the wild population and reduce its risk of extinction.

Andrew Owen, Head of Birds at Chester Zoo, said:

“The blue-eyed ground-dove is one of the rarest animals on the planet and it’s a real privilege for Chester Zoo to be involved in the efforts to recover a species as rare and as precious as this. The fact is, we’ve got to do something, otherwise it’ll be a case of sitting by and watching these beautiful birds go extinct. We refuse to let that happen without a fight.   

“Saving a species from extinction takes real passion, dedication and a collaborative approach, and the partnership of conservationists focussed on saving this diminutive little dove has an abundance of these elements. For our part, we first got involved six years ago when invited to lend our technical expertise to help develop a recovery plan for these critically endangered birds. Now, it’s about putting that plan into action and incubating, hatching and hand-rearing chicks to try to establish an insurance population in human care. The ultimate goal is for that insurance population to produce birds that will be returned to the wild.

“We have many skilled staff at the zoo who, working closely with delicate bird species on a daily basis, have perfected the intricate art of hand-rearing. Those skills have been used in Brazil where we’re pleased to say a chick has been successfully hatched and nurtured. It may only be one chick but, when it represents more than 5% of the entire global population, it’s a significant step forward for the species.”

The latest hatching builds on a conservation planning process undertaken with many partners and facilitated by:

The Conservation Planning Specialist Group of IUCN and the Centre for Species Survival — Brasil.

Partners on the project, in addition to those mentioned above, include:

Botumirim City Council, the State Forest Institute of Minas Gerais, Instituto Grande Sertão, ICMBio/CEMAVE,  BirdLife International, Durrell Wildlife, Escola Superior de Agricultura Luiz de Queiroz, Vogelpark Marlow, the Avian Genetics and Molecular Evolution Lab of the University of São Paulo, and the University of Brasília. Financial support comes from the American Bird Conservancy, BirdLife International Species Champion - Bruce Peterjohn, Brazilian Ministry for the Environment and the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. 

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