Interview with Juan Cornejo, curator of the most complete parrot collection in Loro Parque. PART I

March 4th, 2016 | by LubosTomiska
Interview with Juan Cornejo, curator of the most complete parrot collection in Loro Parque. PART I
ZOOs and birdparks
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Read also the second part of this interview:

Interview with Juan Cornejo, curator of the most complete parrot collection in Loro Parque. PART II

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A few weeks ago ParrotsDailyNews visited the most complete parrot collection in the world on Tenerife island. We took that opportunity to interview the current bird curator Juan Cornejo. In the following article you can read more about his work, LP research activities or parrot conservation.

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Juan, in this July it will be three years from the time you start working at the position of a bird curator in Loro Parque. How would you assess your work so far?

I enjoy a lot my work at Loro Parque, it’s a great professional opportunity to be at front of the largest and most diverse parrot collection in the world. It is a complex job, as I have to manage both the zoo collection at Loro Parque and the breeding centre (called “La Vera”) of Loro Parque Fundación. They are two different collections, with different objectives and management, even though they are linked together closely. I´m very lucky to have the constant encouragement of Wolfgang Kiessling, the person who created the collection, as well as an amazing team in my department, both for their talent and experience, as for their human quality. In such large collection, it is not easy to keep track of all the details and provide every single bird with what it needs. It is crucial to have the proper information in order to take the right decisions. That’s why I made an effort to improve the control over the status of the collection.

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Hyacinth Macaw in breeding centre La Vera (c) Lubomir Tomiska

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So you record data from the chick development, incubation period etc…

Yes, in the past, birdkeepers used to do that physically (they wrote it on paper), and now I have stacks of papers on cabinets with weights of chicks and eggs. Those records are of limited used, as it will take a lot of effort to get the information out to use it. Today, we keep all those records electronically, having instant access to them. For example when hand feeding chicks, we plot the daily weights against the average weights from previous chicks in order to monitor if they are developing properly.

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Just to summarize it – you want to get data which are useful.

Exactly. I try to make the most out of the information we manage and the time we spend recording it. Our collection inventory is also a critical working tool; we can access all the health and breeding records of each bird instantly, easing the decision taking in such a large collection. The previous curator Simon Bruslund Jensen started this database and I continue in it.

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You should use all this data in your research activities.

Yes, that’s one of the purposes. We are now starting to work in a very interesting project aimed to understand better the natural incubation parameters of parrots. Current incubation techniques for parrots are based mostly in what we know from the poultry industry, but there is probably an over simplification of the natural incubation parameters and I think there is room for improvement. I´m interested in finding out how do different species turn their eggs and what is the incubation temperature during the whole process. For this project, we will be using dummy eggs which have a gyroscope and a thermometer inside, that log the orientation of the egg and the temperature changes every second. It all runs on a small battery that lasts for 10 or 12 days. At the same time, we will be monitoring the nesting and incubation behaviour of the study pairs through infrared cameras installed in the nestboxes. We are going to use this technology during the current breeding season on several nests of Eclectus parrots, Cockatoos, Amazons and Macaws. The preliminary results are very encouraging, and I believe it will be useful to improve the current artificial incubation techniques. The project is funded by Loro Parque Fundacion and we collaborate with San Jose State University and the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology.

READ  ZOO Wuppertal will exhibit Lear’s Macaws in the new birdhouse Aralandia

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Stella Lorikeet in Katandra aviary (c) Lubomir Tomiska

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How did it come about that you became a bird curator in Loro Parque. Can you tell me more about your history?

I was born in Spain and birds were my passion since I remember. After studying Biology my first job was a position of Junior Researcher in Loro Parque. At that time, Roger Sweeney was curator here and La Vera was built in half size as you can see it today. I spent here almost two years working on a few projects under the guidance of Dr. David Waugh, the current director of LPF. Among other things I did an assessment of the diet and nutrition of the lories, as well as of Triclaria malachitacea.

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Then you left Spain…

From Canary Islands, I left to the Philippines where I work as a volunteer for a wildlife rescue centre on Negros Island. It was huge cultural shock for me at the beginning, but after I acclimatized I enjoyed it a lot. It was an amazing experience to work in a tropical region with so many endangered and endemic species. When the funding dried up I started looking for a job in a tropical country in Latin America and found one in Costa Rica. There I spent over a year working on a breeding and release project of Scarlet Macaws into the wild. Nowadays, there are several similar projects but at that time it was the only one. While I was there I received a job offer from Mexico.

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Any conservation project again?

In Mexico, I got a title of bird curator for the first time. It was in African Safari, a family owned drive-through safari park, which also included a large bird breeding centre. The collection was not very large, but included very exciting species, and I had the opportunity of creating breeding programs for species such as Maroon-fronted Parrots, Socorro Parakeets, as well as Horned Guans, Tuxtla quail-doves and Golden Eagles from scratch. It was a very nice job for me and I spent there eight years. I even had time to marry and my two children were born there

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Breeding center La Vera (c) Lubomir Tomiska

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How was it that you liked that place so much?

The best thing was that I could work with species which hadn’t been bred before or in very few numbers. I found it very motivating to develop husbandry techniques for species which are not well known in captivity. Over the time I focused the breeding collection on Mexican endemic species. It made more sense to me than working with exotic species and also gave me the opportunity to go to the field and learn about their diet and natural habitat. I worked in close contact with the main researchers in the field and created a synergy with the in situ conservation of the species.

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You have also mentioned some research about content of parrot chick crops?

While in Mexico, I realized that I had to improve my research skills if I wanted to continue doing it, so I decided to pursue a Ph.D. At the same time Dr. Donald Brightsmith, a well-known researcher of parrots from Texas A&M who participated on many important papers on geophagy in parrots, was just looking for a candidate to study the nutrition of the wild parrot chicks, so I jumped in and moved to Texas. The project consisted in taking samples of the crops of wild parrot chicks and analysing it to determine its nutritional composition as well as the foods used.

READ  Interview with Juan Cornejo, curator of the most complete parrot collection in Loro Parque. PART II

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What did you find out?

It’s difficult to summarize all our findings in a few sentences. One of the most surprising things we found was how parrots of different taxonomy and ecology such as Scarlet Macaws, Bahama Amazons, Lilac-crowned Amazons or Thick-billed Parrots feed their chicks with virtually the same nutrition. This means two things: firstly, the nutritional requirements of most parrot chicks are almost the same. At the end of the day their metabolism and their grow pattern are very similar, so there is not much difference in their nutritional needs.

Secondly, it was also very interesting to observe how parrots from very different habitats were able to choose the right ingredients in order to deliver the right nutrition to their chicks. They don’t make use of their food resources randomly. They have evolved in their ecosystems and these provide them with the food they need, but they also have nutritional wisdom and know what to choose. For example, Lilac-crowned Amazons from the dry forest of Mexico have a diet based on only four to five kinds of seeds. However, the Scarlet Macaws in the rainforest of Peru consume more than a hundred different items (in addition to clay, which also feed to their chicks in amazing amounts!), but at the end what they offer to their chicks has almost the same nutrition value.

It was the first time that anybody looked at the crop content of parrots from the nutritional point of view. There were hard times, as it is not easy to go back to school after so many years out of the university, even less when you have a family to provide, however I do not regret at all.

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from the left side: Jan Sojka (editor-in-chief Nova Exota magazine), Juan Cornejo (bird curator LP), Lubomir Tomiska (editor-in-chief ParrotsDailyNews), Stepan Sestak (well-known Czech aviculturist)

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So you finished Ph.D. in Texas and then moved to Bronx Zoo…

I always admired the work of the Bronx Zoo, but I had never expected to work at the place. I knew the bird curator at the time, Dr. Nancy Clum, and it was a huge surprise when during a conference she asked me what my plans were after finishing my Ph.D., and she offered me the position of assistant curator of ornithology. I couldn’t believe it, it was a dream came true! So even before defending my thesis I was working for the Bronx Zoo. I learned a lot working there, the bird collection is one of the largest in the country, and there is an amazing group of zoo professionals. Unfortunately, the position was funded only for two years, and until the end of the period I couldn’t know if more funding was going to be secured or not.

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So you started looking for a new job?

It was close to the end of the two years, although I was not yet looking for a new job, when I received an offer from Loro Parque. In the previous years I had no interest in returning back to live in Spain, but then I had my children growing and my parents were getting older, so I was starting to think about the idea. At the end, everything came together and I decided to move back and take the job in Tenerife.

READ  Prague ZOO has raised four Edward’s Fig Parrots

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How was it to come back to Loro Parque?

It was literally going back to a place that I knew I liked and where I still had friends. It was a big relief to work again in my native language. From the beginning, I had a very nice sensation of familiarity in my working environment. It was the place of my first job, so returning after more than 15 years was somehow to close a circle.

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Rare Thick-billed Parrots (c) Lubomir Tomiska

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Your family does like this place?

Yes, I found it is like a mix between Latin America and Europe. They like it here a lot, and me too!

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Are you in charge of any species studbooks?

Yes, I am the coordinator of the Lear’s Macaw studbook and I also manage the Blue-throated Macaw international studbook. Besides that, I am still the Horned Guan studbook keeper, which I started while in Mexico.

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Can you describe the current situation of Lear’s Macaws in captivity?

Basically there are two institutions currently breeding this species really well, Loro Parque Fundacion and Al Wabra WP. In LPF there are two breeding pairs, in Al Wabra three. More than 70 chicks have been raised and the population is growing well, however more than half of the current population descends from those five pairs, and that doesn’t help to increase the genetic diversity of the population. Sao Paulo Zoo bred last year the species for the first time in Brazil and I hope other institutions in their country of origin also start doing it soon.

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Lear’s Macaws in La Vera breeding center

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But 70 chicks, it’s still good breeding result…

Indeed, it is great and it shows that we know the husbandry of this species really well. However, it is not enough to breed many, we need to reproduce more of the founders, the birds that come from the wild. There are currently many in captivity and have unique genes. If they die before passing them to the next generation that genetic material will be lost forever from the population. So the priorities of the program right now are to get more of the wild born birds to breed and to equalize the representation of the current breeding pairs. I’m also captive management adviser for the breeding program, and along with Dr. Cromwell Purchase from AWWP I wrote the husbandry manual, which was provided to the Brazilian partners to help improve their breeding results. It’s an active international breeding program, in the next weeks we are planning to send nine birds hatched at LPF back to Brazil. It will be a very important step for the program as it will provide the zoos and breeding centres in the country birds to breed, and it justifies the effort we do at LPF. We are also planning to receive founders from Brazil to add them to the breeding stock here.

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You have mentioned that new bloodline would help to save this parrot a lot. Do you believe that private breeders will be involved in this project or not?

The program is managed by the Brazilian government and it is up to them who participates. I believe there are many skilled private aviculturists in Europe and they could play a very important role in the reproduction of the species. Currently the Brazilian government is giving priority to the zoos, but as the program expands, I guess private breeders will also be able to join.

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Do you expect any release of Lear’s Macaws into the wild?

The release of Lear´s Macaw into the wild is one of the main objectives of the Brazilian Government. There is not yet a definitive plan for releasing birds but some discussions have already happened, and Loro Parque Fundacion is offering parent reared birds for this purpose.

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READ THE SECOND PART OF THIS INTERVIEW ON THE NEXT FRIDAY!

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Title photo: (c) Lubomir Tomiska

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