Cincinnati Zoo home to the blue crowned laughing owls

The triplets are so similar that they always meet and put themselves in everyone else’s business.

“They’re guys,” says Ashley O’Connell with a smile. “They’re just my cute babies.”

And on Sibling Day (yes, there is such a thing and it’s Saturday), O’Connell is especially proud that everyone who sees their cubs witnesses their devotion to one another.

“You are so adorable,” cooed O’Connell.

They are birds.

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Blue crowned Laughing Thrushes, to be precise, an endangered species native to southeast China. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, only between 50 and 249 adults are left in the wild. There are fewer than 100 in the North American zoo population.

“They’re social by nature,” says O’Connell, though she didn’t realize how social they were until these three got to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens. And unlike their boys at home who only occasionally share time and toys at 5 and 8, these three are all about the benefits of brotherhood. So much so that O’Connell, a senior zookeeper on the zoo’s breeding team, says, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen them fight or quarrel.”

She even calls her “Lovely Dovey”.

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Which is funny, given their names.

Han Solo, Vader and Luke, named for their place of birth in Disney’s animal kingdom, came from the same nest and hatched at the same time on June 24, 2018. They traveled north together to live here and have remained a trio since arriving on April 3, 2019.

Flowers are part of daily enrichment and give the zoo's blue-crowned laugh scraps something new to investigate.  Difficult to say, but that's Hans Solo who does the enlightenment.

It’s been two years, says O’Connell, wondering how time flies. Two years of sibling adventure, sibling loyalty, sibling care.

Together, the siblings store their food, hide worms and crickets (which eventually wobble or crawl away) and seeds and bits of food in the mulch of the Australasia exhibition in Wings of the World. Sometimes a devious brother takes out someone else’s hiding place and hides it elsewhere. Or, like brothers everywhere, decide he needs to be a little alone.

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OK, maybe the beautiful pigeon is a bit of a stretch.

Even so, the cubs often fly together and have a habit of greeting arriving roommates in their habitat of 10 species and 23 birds, flying up close and hopping around and whistling to the newcomers.

“You’re like the nosy neighbor sometimes,” says O’Connell.

How curious?

Whenever a brood pigeon flies away to eat something, the laughing thrushes rush to their nest, hop around in it and poke around their unfertilized eggs with their beaks. “You’re a little pushy,” admits O’Connell.

Boys stay boys.

But her manner is also lovely. These tiny Asian songbirds are especially known for taking care of newly hatched siblings. (Maybe egg poking is about that, says O’Connell.)

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There was that one time when the zookeepers put an ostrich egg in the habitat to see what the Laughing Thrush Brothers would do. As O’Connell expected, the boys examined the egg, sat on it, poked in and around it, and whistled while they worked.

However, it’s not all happiness.

They are persistent about their looks and depend on each other for their personal support.

Vader, left, blows his feathers so that his brother Han Solo can clean and fluff the feathers around his neck.

When one brother inflates his plumage, another hops over and sticks his beak into his brother’s feathers and brushes himself away, mainly preening and whirling up the tiny feathers around his neck. The birds seem to take turns so that all three can do the work for each other. Grooming is important, says O’Connell, to keep them warm and help them fly.

The cubs have not yet been paired with female laughingbirds for breeding and they are still young, which may explain some of their dedication to siblings, their zookeeper says. A new breed of family unit is coming soon: this summer, the zoo may be home to a fourth male, blue-crowned laughing thrush.

Ashley O'Connell, senior zookeeper, finds the fraternal trio of Laughing Thrushes lovable, if curious.  Noting that many people miss the majesty of these birds, she adds that penguins are getting all the attention.

“I’m really curious about the stepbrother,” she says. “Will that change your dynamic or will he become part of the squad?”

O’Connell, once a gorilla keeper and then a zoo keeper, says she never thought she’d be so passionate about birds – let alone those little ones. (The penguins get all the attention, she says.)

But the three blue-crowned laughing thrushes are hers, she says, beaming like any mother would.

Zoo keeper Ashley O'Connell names the three blue-crowned laughing thrushes with their twittering, which they immediately recognize and react to.

She can mimic her whistle, and when she does, they whistle back.

They fly to greet them. They watch her closely and seem to be listening to her while she talks to them.

They could swing by and listen to you too as you make your way on your visit, says O’Connell. That is, after all, their social nature.

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But even if they don’t, you shouldn’t have any trouble discovering them, she says.

Look for the lucky gang of brothers.

Look for “brotherly love,” says O’Connell.

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