Head-starting: Hands-on Conservation

In this latest blog we learn more about head-starting and hear from Senior Conservation Breeding Officer Nicky Hiscock.

Project Godwit has a whole host of fascinating people, with years of experience in the conservation field, working on it to restore the numbers of black-tailed godwits breeding in the fens. Project managers who have worked on many species reintroduction and conservation programmes oversee the project, from working out logistics, organising funding, and supporting all the staff involved. Nature reserve wardens from The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) are managing habitat to create the perfect home for godwits on the project sites. Research experts closely monitor the behaviour and numbers of the godwits and their potential predators. Volunteers diligently report sightings of godwits and photograph the project. Engagement staff and volunteers drum up support and interest from local communities, and a team of aviculturists – people who specialise in breeding and caring for captive birds – conduct the head-starting, the part of the project which captures the most amount of attention and intrigue from the public.

A headstarted black-tailed godwit named Earith. Photo by Jonathan Taylor.

Head-starting is a conservation technique for endangered species, in which young animals are raised artificially and then released into the wild. It is often done with birds but there are projects using head-starting with rare amphibians such as the pool frog in the UK and reptiles like fresh water turtle species in the USA.

Project Godwit collects wild black-tailed godwit eggs from the RSPB Nene Washes, where there are relatively good numbers of godwit nests but sadly a very low chick survival rate. They are then transported to WWT Welney Wetland Centre where they are raised in a specially built bio-secure breeding facility before being released onto the Ouse Washes and back at the Nene Washes. A team of highly experienced aviculturists from WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre come to WWT Welney for three months to care for the captive godwits and prepare them for release. The project began in 2017 and 26 head-started godwits were released that year. The following year 36 godwits were released and in 2019 48 godwits were released.

A black-tailed godwit chick in the breeding facility at WWT Welney.

The process of transporting the eggs to WWT Welney is hair-raising. The team have to drive painfully slowly over the fenland roads (which are not known for their smoothness) in order for the eggs to reach their destination undamaged.

WWT have used head-starting before to save species of birds on the brink of extinction, including the spoon-billed sandpiper, the eurasian crane, and more recently the curlew.

Nicky Hiscock is the Senior Conservation Breeding Officer who coordinates the godwit head-starting at WWT Welney. She began working for WWT as a Seasonal Aviculturist working on the Great Crane Project, a project that successfully released 93 cranes over 5 years on the Somerset Levels having head-started them at Slimbridge.

Common crane chick reared at WWT Slimbridge using adult crane costumes.

Cranes are sociable birds that imprint on their parents and depend on them to show them how to feed for themselves and survive. This meant the aviculturists had to disguise their human forms when working with the crane chicks to ensure they imprinted on something that resembled a crane and not a person.

Fortunately godwits chicks are surprisingly independent and within a few hours of hatching they know what to do and how to look for food, so although it may be fun, there’s no need for the staff at Welney to disguise themselves as godwits.

Nicky also worked on WWT’s famous head-starting and breeding programme for the spoon-billed sandpiper, a tiny migratory wetland bird that in the year 2000 plummeted to fewer than 200 pairs worldwide. Using head-starting on the spoon-billed sandpiper breeding grounds in Russia, WWT staff managed to increase the number of successful fledglings by 20%.

A spoon-billed sandpiper feeding.

Nicky and her colleagues are on the front line of bird conservation and are conducting a very hands-on form of conservation. When handling precious eggs and having potentially the future of an entire species in your care, the pressure can be high.

One of the difficulties I face is dealing with the doubts that ‘the eggs won’t hatch’ which begin to fill your mind, especially the longer the eggs are under your care. It is not until that first chick hatches that the doubts lift and you start to believe the majority of the eggs will go on to hatch. It wouldn’t take much to lose an incubator full of black-tailed eggs, for example, if there was a power cut which was not observed by the team, so it’s very easy to take the pessimistic view.’ – Nicky Hiscock.

And when the eggs finally do hatch, there are plenty of risks with rearing birds in captivity that the head-starting team have to factor in whilst caring for the birds.

For example, as the godwits are approaching the age at which they would fledge (approximately 30 days old) they begin to test out their flight muscles and practice flying. When in a rearing pen there is a risk of the birds flying into the enclosure boundary and injuring themselves, particularly if they get frightened. Therefore the head-starting team install soft cladding around the hard parts of the outdoor rearing and release pens to avoid this.

There is also a risk of predators being attracted to outdoor sites where birds are being kept. It would be disastrous if a fox or a weasel managed to get into the pens and so electric fences are installed around the pens to protect the godwits.

There are also potential health risks for the birds that the aviculturists have to manage. Sometimes when chicks have too much protein and calories in their diet it can lead to health problems such as split wing or angel wing, which is more commonly seen in geese, ducks and swans. This is a deformity of their flight feathers which would cause them considerable problems in the wild, so the aviculturists closely manage the food available to the chicks.

Nicky and the team work round the clock to look after the birds, and the nature of the job requires them to be multi-skilled. They don’t just need a deep knowledge and understanding of bird husbandry, they also have to build and maintain enclosures, keep meticulous records, source equipment, keep up with admin, follow strict biosecurity protocol, and occasionally find time to eat and sleep.

‘When the godwits are released I usually feel two major feelings:

Relief – that we have been able to put a flock of healthy godwits back in to the wild.

Worry – that we can no longer protect the birds from dangers such as predation.’ – Nicky Hiscock.

Nicky at the breeding facility late at night, caring for godwit chicks round the clock.

Head-starting is often used as a final push to save a species, as it is only really effective on species whose populations are incredibly low. For example, many ask if this is something that could be done for other wading birds in the UK such as lapwing, red-listed birds whose numbers have declined to a worrying level in recent years. But the answer would be no. It takes a lot of time, money, expertise and resources just to head-start 48 godwit chicks (our result in 2019). Over 3 years, the Project has released 112 godwits into the wild, doubling the UK’s population and bringing the breeding pair numbers on the Ouse Washes from 3 to 12, the best it has been for 20 years. The impact on a species with a small population is huge, but on a species such as lapwing, with the current UK breeding population at 140,000 pairs, our efforts wouldn’t scratch the surface.

‘The best moment for me on the job was hearing the news that Earith (a head-started female released at Welney in 2017) had nested and hatched her own chicks (at least three) at the Pilot Project Site on 19 June 2018. The team and I were sat on the sunny balcony at WWT Welney enjoying a celebratory lunch after releasing one of the 2018 cohorts of head-started birds when the news came through, including a gorgeous photo of Earith in flight, taken by Jonathan Taylor, the Site Manager for the Pilot Project site. This news, coupled with the successful release of birds just an hour or so earlier was just great. One of Earith’s chicks returned to the fens in 2019 and recently in 2020. Every subsequent sighting and shared photo of ‘Daughter of Earith’, has resulted in fond memories of this moment.’

A head started godwit in the wild. Photo by Chris O’Riordan.

It’s fair to say that the members of the head-starting team have a very niche job role. In 2019, four aviculturists came to Welney to do the head-starting, Nicky Hiscock, Tony Durkin, Harriet Clarke and Amelia Bennet-Margrave, whilst others stayed in Slimbridge to care for WWT’s conservation breeding collection which includes spoon-billed sandpipers, black-tailed godwits, Baer’s pochard, and curlew. Collectively the team have worked with hundreds of different species all over the world and listening to them speak of their experiences is a real treat for any bird enthusiast.

‘After studying a degree in Biology, I decided to pursue a career in nature conservation. I fell into bird conservation, initially by volunteering at WWT Slimbridge with the reserve team, but looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.’ – Nicky Hiscock

By Jess Owen – Project Godwit Engagement Officer.