So ugly he’s cute: Seymour, is a shoebill chick with a bottomless stomach, named ever so fittingly after Seymour in the Little Shop of Horrors. The chick was rescued by an environmentally conscious villager in Zambia’s Bangweulu Wetlands, and is now in the care of the Bangweulu Wetlands Project.
African Parks employ guards to watch the nests every season to protect the nests from people and fire, all of which pose a threat to these prehistoric looking fowls. A local villager heard stories that people from another nearby village were planning to steal the newly hatched shoebill. When he noticed footprints around the nest he genuinely believed the shoebill was at risk and took the baby bird into his care. The man kept the bird at his home and later notified the project staff about its location.
Seymour arrived at the project, ravenous after living on a diet of cassava for two days. Although unsure of the chick’s sex and not entirely in favour of naming wild animals the handlers christened the chick Seymour. Since then Seymour built up a robust appetite, continued to grow and spent most of his time with his wooden figure of a mother ‘protecting the nest’ as his parent would have done in the wild. At night he was put in a quiet box with a hot water bottle and heavy blanket over it to stimulate brooding.
As with crane-rearing, human contact is limited so as to prevent Seymour from imprinting. He was fed five to six times a day by a person in a grey sheet and sock puppet so as not to break the human form. The sheet is also left in the enclosure so that there is always something familiar around for the chick. Since Seymour is a waterbird he needs to be watered. Watering is done by using a large syringe that is dribbled into the chick’s open mouth or onto the chick when it is hot. This simulates the parent dribbling water for the chick from its own beak.
As Seymour got bigger he was fed only three times a day and bigger pieces of fish were left around the nest to encourage him to peck and forage. Older shoebill chicks spend a vast amount of time by themselves in the wild while their parent is on the hunt. Seymour however does have visiting hours in which people can come see him through a sheet of glass.
Seymour is now in a large enclosure in his natural environment where he will continue to be attended to until he is ready to fledge. When that days arrives Seymour will be fitted with a satellite transmitter to monitor progress. Seymour will also have his own ‘birdy ID’ – a ring that helps project mangers to identify different birds.
If the villager had left the chick where it was the Bangweulu Wetlands Project would have employed him as a shoebill guard for that nest for the season. The community facilitator at the Bangweulu Wetlands Project has since visited him on several occasions to make sure he understands how the shoebill guard program works and that removing the chicks from their parents is a last resort.
The Bangweulu Wetlands is listed as a RAMSAR sight and is home to 200 – 300 shoebills and the endemic black lechwe. The wetlands support a local fishing community that generates US$8m in fish which is traded, and provides an income for some 50 000 people. The Bangweulu Wetlands Project is constantly working to protect the wetland and its wildlife from people, fire and poaching.