Aloha, Green Mama

Green Mama, one month before her passing.

It was a wet day. With an average annual rainfall surpassing 300 inches (762 centimeters), almost every day in Kauai’s Alaka`i Swamp is wet. That 26th day in April 1996, 4 tiny puaiohi eggs were collected from wild nests. In total, there were seven puaiohi (or small Kauai thrush) eggs collected that year, all a cream color with a thousand tiny, brown spots speckling the fat end, and only five were fertile.

In 1996, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (at that time operated by The Peregrine Fund) was spearheading efforts to recover Hawaii’s native birds. By that time, the wild population of the puaiohi was at a crossroads. It was thought to be extinct in 1950. Habitat loss, rats, cats, and disease carried by introduced mosquitoes were the biggest enemies to puaiohi survival and continue to haunt all wild forest birds in Hawaii. Luckily, this enigmatic little bird was rediscovered by Frank Richardson and John Bowles in 1960. When it was officially listed as endangered in 1967, the puaiohi was given a second chance at life; but with 177 total sightings between 1968 and 1973 and only 13 in 1983, it was in dire need of assistance.

Joop Kuhn harvests precious puaiohi eggs from the wild in 1996.

Little was known about these birds, as they had never been bred or kept in captivity. With so few individuals left, each incoming puaiohi egg was a precious gem whose population couldn’t afford mistakes. In preparation, `ōma`o, the only Hawaiian thrush not endangered (or extinct) at the time, were used as a “model” species to develop incubation and captive-rearing techniques and release methods. Wild eggs artificially incubated and hatched were considered the best option, because wild adult birds might not adapt to captive life as well as birds raised in managed care. The strategy proved successful, and 25 `ōma`o were hatched and eventually released. With the triumph of the surrogate program, the proverbial “stage” was set and ready for puaiohi.

Fluctuating cabin pressure made transporting eggs inter-island risky. Instead, the eggs were brought to local biologist Jim Denny’s “egg house” to complete their incubation and were monitored with great anticipation. The first to hatch was named Ikaika, meaning “strength” in Hawaiian. (It was an oddly fitting name, considering its inspiration came off the back of the softball shirt Jim Denny wore as he hiked through the Alaka`i!) The last egg collected hatched on April 27, and the chick, given the studbook number 5, was transported to the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Big Island three days later. She grew up and laid her own eggs the following year, but none of the original eggs collected in 1996 produced males, so #5’s first eggs were infertile. Twelve more eggs were collected from the Alaka`i in 1997, and by 1998, the first fertile puaiohi eggs were laid in captivity. The following year, the first 14 birds we raised were released into the Alaka`i.

Cyndi Kuehler and Tom Snetsinger candle a puaiohi egg in 1996.

Remaining with us, #5 hatched and successfully reared seven chicks, including babies she fostered in addition to her own brood; she even fostered palila eggs! Because of this, puaiohi #5 ultimately earned the name Green Mama in part due to the tiny green band on her left leg. She was retired from the breeding program in 2002 to give her body a break but continued in her determination to benefit the species by building nests and teaching an army of staff and interns the ways of her kind.

The morning of April 25, 2012, two days short of her 16th birthday, Green Mama died. In the days leading up to her death, she showed no signs of ill health and was happy to chase after every insect tossed her way. Like most birds, she was never one to complain, but at almost 16, Green Mama was actually very old. She was the record holder for longest-lived captive puaiohi and was also the last surviving founding member of the first 15 eggs hatched during the program’s inception. Quite simply, her time had finally come.

While we mourn Green Mama’s passing, we also celebrate a great victory for the puaiohi, the only Kaua`i forest bird species that has not declined over the last decade. Recent surveys show that the wild population has increased to 500 to 800 birds and is now relatively stable. A more accurate estimate is difficult to obtain due to the difficult nature of the terrain in the Alaka`i. But at this point, our captive breeding and release program can be halted while field crews monitor the wild population to see if it can thrive on its own over longer periods of time (see post Puaiohi: Released and Breeding). Green Mama would be proud!

In the islands, aloha is an expression of the joy in one’s soul and refers to the genuine feeling of love, friendship, and compassion that is readily given to all. We use it as a greeting when giving our aloha to those we meet and to wish someone well when they take their leave. In this manner, perhaps it is best to wish Green Mama aloha as she continues her journey so we never have to say goodbye.

Sharon Belcher is a senior research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Nene: Movin’ On Up.

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