In the northern plains of southeastern Australia, bird enthusiasts can spot a chubby little guy with brown feathers and a black-and-white speckled neck and breast wandering around—if they’re very lucky. The critically endangered plains-wanderer is endemic to the continent, but loss of habitat has reduced its numbers to less than a thousand.
Now, biologists at the Werribee Open Range Zoo in Victoria, Australia, have hatched nine healthy chicks—what they believe is the greatest number of chicks born at once anywhere. Some of the bird eggs had to sit in an incubator to be born, the first time the zoo has successfully done so.
The hatching of these birds—born between March 19 and 20—is no little thing. They’re not merely an endangered species; the plains-wanderer is one of the most “evolutionary distinct” birds in the world, according to a 2014 study. That’s, in part, why the zoo is busily breeding them.
“To lose such an ancient, unique species would be completely devastating,” said a zoo spokesperson in an email to Earther.
They’ve been dwindling in numbers at the hands of humans who have been converting their grassland habitat to land for agriculture, per the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The pesticides used in farming don’t help, either. The bird relies mostly on grass seeds for food, but it also sucks insects like beetles and ants out of the ground.
Usually, zoo keepers don’t get involved and let the adult birds do their thing. However, when they found a clutch of five abandoned eggs in the zoo’s enclosure, they felt compelled to, explained the spokesperson. The eggs need warmth to develop, so the team finally decided to intervene on behalf of the abandoned eggs when that dad was clearly not coming back. The other four eggs hatched were reared by their father.
The ultimate goal is for the National Recovery Program—a team that includes other zoos and conservation organizations across Australia—to have at least 30 plains-wanderers in captivity to eventually release back into the wild. Right now, Werribee Open Range Zoo has 20, including the newly hatched chicks. The program isn’t operating on a strict timeline, but the loose target is within five years.
Maybe by 2030, bird watchers will have better luck spotting the bird’s white-and-black speckled collar in the plains of southeastern Australia.