Zoo launches first database to help birds return to their habitats

Sometimes it’s the simple, but labor-intensive, tasks that make the biggest difference. The Lincoln Park Zoo has released a database documenting a century’s worth of events where birds have been introduced into new habitats in the wild. The birds were either bred in captivity or relocated from one natural habitat to another, and the results have been mixed.

According to the World Conservation Union's 2007 Red List, 16,306 species are now defined as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. About 12 per cent of birds are threatened, and dozens of reintroduction programs in the past few decades have attempted to repopulate fragile habitats. But they don’t always succeed, and wildlife reintroduction programs are often subject to criticism. One common argument is that the same funds dedicated to captive breeding could be devoted to protecting rainforests, potentially improving the chances of survival for hundreds more species.

A study published in January 2008 found that two-thirds of captive-bred carnivores reintroduced into the wild don’t survive, many killed due to human activities, such as hunting and car accidents. That depressing statistic just shows that a lot remains unknown about how to ease an animal from captive life to an environment that likely still includes the threats that endangered them in the first place.

Enter the Avian Reintroduction & Translocation Database, a standardized directory that pools together the results from 1,207 avian reintroduction programs, dating back to 1925. It encompasses 128 bird species and 405 sites around the world.

There’s actually an incredible amount of information condensed into the elegant profiles of each bird in the database. The aim of the directory is to capture details about reintroduction experiments that aren’t quantitative but are central to the design of each project, such as details about how the animals were prepared for the transfer, and the characteristics of each new habitat.

Is it super high-tech? Not really, but as pretty much every data-intensive scientific field has come to realize, making data portals that are easily accessible to everyone who needs them—especially when the data can be encoded in all kinds of formats, collected and tracked with reference to certain variables but not others—is an extremely labor-intensive task, but one that can provide enormous time savings to the scientists who need the data most.

Lucky birds. When will amphibians, insects and those charismatic megafauna receive their data repositories?