What's new at Basel Zoo

Until recently, Basel Zoo went for 25 years without seeing any red-breasted geese. Now, a pair which came to Basel from England have produced young. The parents and their two children have made themselves at home amongst the flamingos.

As in the wild, Basel Zoo’s red-breasted geese built their nests in June, unlike most other birds which begin brooding earlier in the year. On 27 June, the zoo keeper found two chicks in one of the pair’s nests. These soft baby geese have now grown into strapping teenagers, romping about among the flamingos.

Red-breasted geese are very committed parents. The father of the two little ones has demonstrated particular commitment to his children, fearlessly driving away the Egyptian geese and tirelessly chasing them through the ‘undergrowth’ of flamingo legs. The flamingos have been surprisingly calm about these chases. Unfortunately, the eggs belonging to the second pair of red-breasted geese disappeared one day – most likely stolen as a tasty morsel by a nest robber. 

Happiest in company

Red-breasted geese in both captivity and the wild enjoy the company of others. Paradoxically, they seek out brooding areas near to hawks’ nests. They are also less commonly seen in colonies of glaucous gulls or herring gulls. At second glance, bringing up their young near to hawks proves to be a very clever idea: these birds of prey never hunt right by their own nests, but will drive all predators away from the breeding ground – including arctic foxes, which like to creep up to the red-breasted goose chicks. The hawks are also most likely the reason for the geese’s late brooding in June: they are simply copying the hawks and thus enjoying their protection.

A disappearing habitat

Nearly a hundred zoos across Europe are home to red-breasted geese, but they have only produced young at around ten. One of these is Basel Zoo, which has now had its red-breasted geese back for two years – previously this species lived at the zoo for many decades until 1990. In the 1950s and 1960s, the use of DDT began killing off Arctic birds of prey. Until that point, red-breasted geese had continued to brood under their protection. Hunting also increased sharply during this same period. The decline in red-breasted goose numbers could only be halted when efforts were made to protect the bird along their entire migration route. Today, no-one knows exactly how many red-breasted geese there are, and their population fluctuates widely. However, we can be certain that numbers are less than 100,000, they are hunted in their wintering sites of Russia and Kazakhstan, and their habitat is disappearing. The species has therefore been classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN.