Marisa Boyd and Bryan MacAulay were recent recipients of both the Zoo’s Staff Conservation Grants and the International Congress of Zookeepers Conservation Grant. In May, they traveled to Malaysia for two weeks to work with hornbills in their natural habitat. They each developed a project that would benefit all eight species of hornbills that are found in Borneo.

The successful breeding of rhinoceros hornbills at the Zoo inspired Boyd and MacAulay to do more for their wild counterparts. They were confident their knowledge and experience would be helpful in developing conservation strategies for hornbills in the wild. They started by contacting HUTAN, a sustaining grant partner of the Phoenix Zoo, and a local NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) working in the region, to learn more about the current program and some of the challenges they’ve encountered in the past.

One of largest contributing factors to hornbill decline is habitat loss – a devastating result from the clearing of native forests for oil palm plantations. Hornbills require mature, old growth forests to provide them with large nest hollows to reproduce. This is especially true of the two largest species in Borneo: helmeted hornbill and rhinoceros hornbill. Boyd and MacAulay wanted to develop projects that would help increase the reproductive success of these birds.

One of the challenges HUTAN faced was the lack of hornbills nesting in the artificial nest boxes they previously installed in 2013. The extreme fluctuation in temperature and humidity may have been a contributing factor. MacAulay developed a project to increase nesting site availability by designing and constructing artificial nest boxes that would maintain a stable microclimate, similar to that of natural cavities.

Another challenge was the small amount of data they had on the temperature and humidity of both artificial and natural cavities. HUTAN deployed data loggers (electronic devices that record data over time), but many units were stolen, lost or destroyed by wildlife. Boyd developed a project to monitor and track nest cavity microclimates in an efficient and effective way: She utilized compact wireless data loggers and designed inexpensive housing to protect them. Additionally, the wireless capabilities of these data loggers allow researchers to monitor their functionality without climbing up to the nesting boxes – a major benefit considering they are over 100 feet above the ground!

Their work began at the Zoo when they installed a prototype nest box and data loggers in the wrinkled hornbill exhibit within the Tropics Trail early in 2017. After working with dedicated researchers at HUTAN, they are even more excited to be a part of a program that will continue to have a positive impact on hornbill populations – as well as the local community that cares for them – for years to come.