Australian zoo swaps in feather duster for absentee dad who abandoned chicks

An Australian zoo has successfully doubled the population of a critically endangered bird by swapping in a feather duster for an absentee father who abandoned his chicks just before hatching.

Male plains-wanderers, a small, ground-dwelling bird native to southeastern Australia, bear the responsibility for child rearing and stay with the chicks while the female moves on to another mate soon after laying her eggs.

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However, in this case, the four-month-old male who was already struggling to tend to his first set of chicks, stopping sitting on the second set.

In his place, zoo keepers in Victoria placed a feather duster on top of the eggs.

“They have been snuggling up to the feather duster, pushing up into the feathers,” zoo director Glen Holland told The Guardian.

The nine new hatchlings bring the zoo's plains-wanderers to 20. It's only the second time the zoo has been able to successfully hatch plains-wanderer chicks since it started its $500,000 captive breeding program more than a year ago.

“Breeding nine healthy chicks in such a short time is a huge achievement and one we are all very excited about,” the threatened species keeper, Yvette Pauligk told the newspaper.

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“Genetically speaking, they are listed as the fourth most important species worldwide, and the … most important in Australia in evolutionary distinctiveness and extinction risk," she added. “To lose such an ancient, unique species would be completely devastating.”

The chicks, born to two pairs, were hatched within 24 hours of each other. Less than a week after being born, the baby birds were zooming around their enclosure and eating crickets "the size of beans," Holland said.