Training an Alala for an Important Job

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'Alala Kinohi

Alala Kinohi

Kinohi, a male ‘alala (Hawaiian crow), has finally found a place to call home-away-from-home here at the Wild Animal Park. After flying in from Hawaii in May (see previous post, ‘Alala Takes Extraordinary Flight), he spent his first 30 days in quarantine at the San Diego Zoo’s Harter Veterinary Medical Center (HVMC). He was then moved to the off-exhibit Bird Breeding Center at the Wild Animal Park, where we thought he would stay.

As crows are highly susceptible to West Nile virus, his enclosure had to be lined with fine-mesh mosquito netting. Unfortunately, the netting not only kept out the mosquitoes but also reduced airflow through the enclosure, and when summer turned up the heat, not even the water spraying down from the misters could keep his area cool. So, Kinohi was moved back to the HVMC. He now has a large room with a big skylight, two cardboard “nest” boxes, many perches, a bath, several toys, and, of course, air conditioning. His room has a camera, and the keepers can monitor his activity throughout the day. From what they can see, Kinohi likes this quiet and cool room; he appears calm and quite content.

And calm is much better for those of us working with him. Kinohi was sent here so that Dr. Barbara Durrant, director of Reproductive Physiology at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, and her staff could train him for semen collection. As one of only 60 ‘alala left in the world, Kinohi is very important to that population; unfortunately, he is behaviorally compromised and will not breed. His genes will be lost unless we intervene. Our goal is to collect semen to artificially inseminate a compatible female. We also hope to store some of the ‘alala’ semen in the Frozen Zoo. (See previous post, Freezing and Thawing: Not so Easy)

Working with Kinohi certainly is a challenge. Crows are very smart, and if we are not careful, he’ll end up training us instead of the other way around! Luckily, we have had the help of the keepers at both the HVMC and the Bird Breeding Center. They have shared their insights with us as well as making sure all of Kinohi’s needs are met, from food and water to appropriate perches and toys. Park animal trainer Kim Caldwell also gave us advice and taught us the proper way to reward Kinohi during training.

We’ve had to spend time getting to know Kinohi’s personality and gaining his trust. In the beginning, he would never sit still for long, and we felt successful if we had just one solid minute to pet him and left without any new bruises from his beak pounding on our ankles. But little by little we have seen Kinohi transform from an anxious bird, constantly hopping from perch to ground, to one who sits contentedly to get his head scratched. He now perches with his feathers so fluffed that he almost looks like a youngster, and he will even close his eyes while I rub his head feathers and Barbara pets his back and tail, abdomen and cloaca. (The cloaca is the opening through which birds secrete sperm as well as feces and urine.) Eventually he sidles away, hops over to his cardboard box, and fusses with the grasses inside, mumbling to himself. Then we try to lure him back. When he cooperates, he gets one of his favorite treats: a piece of mouse or a waxworm. When he refuses to come back, the session is over.

We feel positive about the progress we’ve made, but our time is running out. Last week, Kinohi started molting. When birds start expending energy to replace their feathers, it is a good indication that the breeding season is over and sperm production is ending. Thus, in our case, Kinohi’s molt tells us that we are not going to collect any sperm this year. Kinohi, however, will be spending the entire year here at the Wild Animal Park, and Barbara and I will be visiting him every day so that next year, when breeding season rolls around again, he should be ready to donate sperm samples to help save his species.

Dianne Van Dien is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read Dianne’s previous post, Frozen Zoo: One Step Forward.