Special birds have special tastes… or more appropriately, they have special nutritional requirements.
Operating managed-care bird propagation centers in the relatively remote location of the Hawaiian Islands comes with its own set of challenges; one of the major challenges is providing our birds with the specialist diets they require to keep them healthy and productive. With the exception of the nene, all the focal species of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program can be described as “softbills,” a loose, general term to describe birds that consume fruit, animal protein, and nectar, or somewhere within that spectrum. For instance, in the wild, `alala are recorded as consuming a wide variety of native fruits, invertebrates and their larvae, as well as the eggs and nestlings of other birds. As another example, Maui parrotbills primarily consume invertebrates and their larvae, as well as nectar and fruits.
While it may not be possible to replicate wild diets exactly, we aim to provide a representation of the wild diet that offers the same balanced nutritional composition, and this is where it becomes challenging. Catering to insectivorous tastes, we import mealworms and crickets from a company in Oahu, as well as laboriously culture waxmoth larvae in-house. These insects are particularly important for providing animal protein to stimulate breeding, build up a bird’s resources for egg-laying, and to fuel the growth of chicks. For `alala, we import mice (adult mice, “fuzzies,” and “pinkies”) from the mainland, which come shipped overnight on dry ice in insulated boxes. For the palila, which specialize in eating the seedpods and flowers of the mamane shrub, this means frequent treks up into the sub-alpine zone on the slopes of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea to harvest the crucial food source.
`Alala are generalists, using that famous corvid intelligence to opportunistically forage for a wide variety of food types. One of the most effective ways to offer a generalist softbill a healthy diet in managed care is to provide softbill pellets as a significant proportion of their diet. These softbill pellets are an all-in-one meal with a balance of carbohydrates, fats, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. This is where we are very fortunate to have the wonderful support of Michelle Goodman and the Kaytee Learning Center, the educational wing of the Kaytee animal nutrition company. For several years, Kaytee has generously donated its Exact Mynah/Toucan pellets to support our `alala program, as well as covering shipping costs from Wisconsin to Hawaii. This is no mean feat—with now over 90 `alala in the flock, that is a lot of beaks to feed, and the most recent shipment weighed half a ton!