CHATTANOOGA — Kevin Calhoon, the Tennessee Aquarium’s assistant curator of forests, gently holds a tiny bird in his hands like a proud father. He’s cared for hatchlings ranging from bluebirds to penguins in his career, but he’s waited two decades for a baby Scarlet Tanager to hatch at the Aquarium.
“To me, this is the most significant bird breeding we’ve ever had at the Aquarium,” said Calhoon. “The Scarlet Tanager has been at the top of my list since I came to work here 21 years ago.”
According to Calhoon, Scarlet Tanagers are not common in captivity because they are a difficult species to acquire. The Aquarium’s native bird collection is comprised mainly of individual birds obtained through licensed wildlife rehabilitators. These birds are nursed back to health, but are deemed non-releaseable due to their injuries. In many cases, they are not fully-flighted to survive in the wild. For whatever reason, Scarlet Tanagers don’t end up needing help as frequently as other species. So Calhoon was elated to observe this pair nesting in the Aquarium’s Cove Forest exhibit.
“It’s such a natural environment with a lot of tulip poplars and other mature trees,” he said. “Even though a lot of visitors pass through the Cove, the birds have plenty of room and habitat. As a result, they are comfortable enough that they display all of their natural behaviors including courtship and breeding.”
Hundreds of native songbirds have hatched since the Aquarium opened in 1992, but this might be the first time a Scarlet Tanager has been reared in a zoo or aquarium.
“I have checked with other bird experts at the Columbus Zoo, Minnesota Zoo and some of their colleagues with large native songbird collections,” said Calhoon. “They were all very excited about this news because as far as anyone knows, Scarlet Tanagers have never been bred on exhibit before.”
The parents are doing a pretty good job of feeding the fledgling even though Calhoon has placed the baby bird in an enclosure to protect it from falling into the trout stream or otter exhibit below.
“In the wild, cup nesters like Tanagers or Robins don’t have a very safe environment, so they fledge about two weeks after hatching,” said Calhoon. “The parents still watch over and feed the babies on the ground which is why people should leave fledglings alone. If it looks like the baby has fallen out of a nest, the parents are still caring for it. Most of the time they’ll be fine if you just leave them alone.”
But, Calhoon suggests moving baby birds a short distance to cover if the bird is out in the open. This helps protect them from cats and other predators.
Native songbirds that are raised on exhibit cannot be released into the wild, so this new addition will either move into the Delta Country exhibit or will be donated to another AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium.
“Fortunately Scarlet Tanagers are not declining in the wild,” said Calhoon. “They are wonderful summertime birds that many people enjoy see
ing and hearing in their yards.”
Fast Facts about Scarlet Tanagers
• Known as Neotropical migrants, spending the winter months in the tropics and migrate into our region to breed
• Seasonal range extends from SE Canada to southern United States
• Scientific name is Piranga olivacea — after breeding, the birds lose their bright red plumage becoming olive-green with black markings in appearance — of the 230 species of Neotropical Tanagers, only two species go through seasonal color changes
• Prefer hardwood forests and are more commonly found along ridges
• Spend much of their time feeding in the upper canopy of trees
• Typically raise two to three chicks in a cup-shaped nest
The Tennessee Aquarium inspires wonder, appreciation and protection of water and all life that it sustains. Admission is $24.95 per adult and $14.95 per child, ages 3-12. Each ticket purchased helps support Aquarium conservation programs. The IMAX® 3D Theater is next door to the Aquarium. Ticket prices are $9.95 per adult and $8.50 per child. Aquarium/IMAX combo tickets are $30.95 for adults and $20.95 for children.
Excursions aboard the new River Gorge Explorer depart daily into “Tennessee’s Grand Canyon.” Cruise tickets are $29 per adult and $21.50 per child (3-12). Advance tickets may be purchased online at www.tnaqua.org or by phone at 1-800-262-0695.
The Aquarium, located on the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, is a non-profit organization. Open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Aquarium and IMAX are accessible to people with disabilities.