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Zoo Atlanta uses puppet to raise 1-month-old vulture chick

Zoo Atlanta is the city's first zoological venue that opened to the public in April 1889.

Likely, you’ve always been able to recognize your mother as your own, but when it comes to raising animals in captivity, that can be a challenge.

To avoid a vulture chick bonding with humans rather than others its own species, Zoo Atlanta has employed the use of a puppet resembling an adult vulture.

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The Grant Park-based zoo’s bird team has been hand-raising a critically endangered hooded vulture chick, which they’ve been documenting on social media for the past week.

"This is the first successful hatch of any vulture species here at Zoo Atlanta, so we are very excited!" read a blog on the zoo's website. "The chick hatched on April 9, so it is now 1 month old and weighs about 800 grams, or just under 2 pounds."

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“It was very important that this chick recognize itself as a vulture and not imprint on humans, so we have been using the strategy of puppet rearing,” the blog continued. “We use a puppet made to look like an adult vulture to feed and interact with the chick while hiding the rest of our bodies with a visual block.”

The chick was born to hooded vultures and first-time parents Tai and Acacia, according to Zoo Atlanta’s Facebook video. Zookeepers decided to artificially incubate the egg and puppet-rear the bird out of an abundance of caution to prohibit the chick from imprinting on humans.

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As described in the video by Zoo Atlanta’s associate curator of birds Lauren Wilson, “imprinting is how a bird gains its sense of self and we want to make sure that this chick knows that it’s a vulture and not a human.”

To do so, zookeepers keep quiet when working with the chick and they get rid of all human noises. They also use the puppet, rather than their hands, when caring for the bird.

A couple of weeks ago, the chick celebrated its first big milestones: it could move to the inside area of the hooded vulture habitat. Located on the opposite side of their shift door, the chick is allowed to see the adults in the habitat at all times while the adults can see it too.

There hasn’t been much interaction as of yet, however — the chick is more interested in its reflection in the mirror and the adults are frightened by the brooder warming the chick.