‘Alala: We’re Getting Closer

'Alala Kinohi

“I know, I know, I know, I know –oh-oh–oh,” says the crow through the door.

“What do you know?” I ask.

“Why-oh-why-wah-hah-hah” is the reply.

Obviously, this is not ordinary crow speech, but this is no ordinary crow. This is Kinohi, an ‘alala (Hawaiian crow) hatched in captivity 20 years ago. Growing up, he lacked other crows to socialize with, and so he developed an unusual vocabulary. But while we may find his human-like babble amusing, there is nothing funny about the fact that he will not breed.

With only 70 known ‘alala left on the planet (see post ‘Alala Season: Encouraging Start), Kinohi’s genes are extremely important. Last spring, it was decided that intervention was necessary. Kinohi was shipped from the Zoo’s breeding facility in Hawaii to the Wild Animal Park, and for nearly an entire year now, Dr. Barbara Durrant and I have been visiting him almost every day to train him for semen collection (see post Training an ‘Alala for an Important Job).

We like to think Kinohi looks forward to our visits. When we enter the anteroom to his new indoor-outdoor enclosure, he calls out, letting us know he knows we are there. As we cut up his mouse into a cup (the pieces are his reward for cooperating with us), Kinohi waits at the door, peering at our feet through the small space at the bottom. To position his eye low enough to see us, he hangs his head upside down, the top of his head resting on the floor.

Spring marks the beginning of the breeding season, and while the ‘alala in Hawaii have been building nests, Kinohi also has been responding to the lengthening daylight. A few weeks ago, he began saving part of his food reward in his beak. It is now his routine to pick up the pieces of mouse one by one, but after swallowing a few, he holds the rest in the back of his mouth. Then, when he has emptied the cup, he takes the morsels to the box that serves as his nest. We think he is trying to bring food to an imaginary mate. He mumbles in a whiny tone, moving the food pieces up and down over his tongue, giving his voice a gurgling quality. Eventually he leaves the nest box, lines up the pieces of mouse on a perch, and eats them one by one as though savoring each bite.

Bird sperm is quite different from the typical sperm of mammals; instead of a round head, the head of bird sperm is long and oval, and in some birds it has a corkscrew shape.

But something more exciting is now underway. Kinohi has begun producing sperm again. Although we have not been able to collect a sample directly from his cloaca, we did find sperm another way. This may sound strange, but after each training session, we wait for him to poop. Because feces, urine, and reproductive fluids all pass through the cloacal opening, it is possible to find sperm in a bird’s droppings. As soon as Kinohi defecates, we use a pipet to suck up the clear portion and take it back to the lab. In the past week, we have finally started to see sperm under the microscope.

The first day there were only a few of these cells, but a few days later, we found dozens in just a tiny drop. Only one of these sperm was motile, however; the rest were not even twitching, but that is not surprising or discouraging, because the sperm were in the inhospitable environment of feces and urine. Over time, the number of sperm should keep increasing. With a little more persistence, perhaps Kinohi will give us a pure sample that we can send to Hawaii, and perhaps he will sire offspring at last (via artificial insemination).

Dianne Van Dien is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

RELATED POSTS