Profile: Jamie Graham, Bird Team Leader

Can you tell us a bit about your role at ZSL?

I manage the Park Bird team that deals with all the breeding birds in Whipsnade Zoo. I also manage the husbandry and the breeding of the corncrakes which we are releasing back into the wild.  

Keeper Jamie

My main responsibilities are to build up the bird collection at Whipsnade and manage a small dedicated team of keepers with varying amounts of experience. We have some extremely rare birds here and getting them to breed is a top priority. Birds are fussy so everything in their enclosures has to be exactly right for you to stand a chance of breeding them.  

Ideally we look to have our birds parent-reared but sometimes this is not possible. Hand-rearing is a skill you have to learn and get a feel for, so it’s my aim to pass on as much of my knowledge and experience as possible to the younger team members, although with birds I am constantly learning as well.

How long have you worked for ZSL and how did you come to be in your current role?

I have worked for ZSL Whipsnade Zoo for just over ten years. Before that I worked for nine years at the Cotswold Wildlife Park as a junior keeper, working with a variety of species including primates, antelope and otters. I came to ZSL to work exclusively with birds and I also wanted to get more involved in conservation. The corncrake project was the part of the Whipsnade job that seriously interested me. 

What made you want to pursue a career in your current field?

The reason I am so passionate about birds is because when I first started in zoos I was very lucky to be working on a section with an extremely knowledgeable bird enthusiast. I just could not help being inspired by my boss and the people around me, so as soon as the opportunity came along I started to work exclusively with birds.

What is the best thing about your job?

Of course I get to work with birds every day, just birds, and that is amazing! They are all individual, it’s a difficult challenge to breed many of them and I get to look after well over 50 species each needing something different.  

Also, the opportunity to pass on my knowledge and experience to younger keepers and to inspire the next generation of bird keepers has to be one of the best things.

Have there been any particular highlights of your career so far?

To be involved in direct conservation with the corncrake project is amazing. It's a rare thing for a keeper to be able to do, breed something one year and then release it that same year.

Other highlights really depends on what we are breeding. Any firsts for the team are always a highlight. We were the first collection in Europe to breed the Sulawesi Tarictic Hornbill, we have just this year managed to breed wattled crane, which no zoo in Europe has managed for quite a few years, and we have parent-reared and hand-reared a total of five blue-crowned laughing thrush, which is one of the rarest birds in the world, again a first for Whipsnade.

I do not know what will be my next highlight - it all depends on how the collection develops!

Cheesy question time! Do you have a favourite animal?  

The shoe-billed stork has to be a favourite that I have not worked with, but at Whipsnade the rockhopper penguins make me smile every time I see them. I can't wait until they are old enough to start breeding. What’s cuter than a rockhopper? A rockhopper chick of course!

Young rockhopper penguins
Rockhopper penguins at Whipsnade

ZSL is a conservation charity. How does your role help ZSL as a society carry out its mission to aid conservation across the world? 

The animals that we work with are all part of a European and sometimes global studbook which help maintain the genetic diversity of these birds for the future. I am the studbook holder for the chestnut-backed thrush, a rare Asian bird which is under threat due to the ever popular song bird trade in many South Asian countries.

The corncrakes we breed are helping to create a sustainable population in England, something we lost more than 100 years ago.  

You can also help work for wildlife by becoming a Wildlife Champion.

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