Have Bird, Will Travel!

Alala chicks settle in at the KBCC.

My time as an intern and seasonal research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) from 2006 to 2007 left quite the impression, so I jumped at the chance to return as a research associate in February 2012. It’s been a nonstop first six months as the newest staff member at MBCC, filled with trips to the Big Island, exciting experiences, and many hungry chick mouths to feed!

The Maui parrotbill breeding season was in full swing upon my arrival at MBCC, and the first chick I participated in raising for the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program was a tiny Maui parrotbill (kiwikiu). A month later, one of our kiwikiu breeding pairs produced another chick. The transfer of this kiwikiu chick to the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) on the Big Island presented the perfect opportunity for me to visit KBCC for the first time. Little did I know that I would be visiting the Big Island facility three times within my first five months!

Natalie carefully holds her precious cargo at the airport.

While I have relocated chicks before, this chick was my first transfer via airplane, and it came with its own unique challenges. Kiwikiu are altricial birds, which means that they are entirely reliant upon their parents for food, warmth, and protection when they hatch. Being a 13-day-old altricial bird weighing in at only 14 grams (0.49 ounces), the kiwikiu chick was unable to completely thermoregulate (maintain his own body temperature) by the day of his journey. A miniature heating pad inside his travel carrier provided him warmth throughout the trip. Constantly monitoring the bird’s well-being, making sure all the correct paperwork was present for security purposes, and the plane ride itself made the trip an exciting and nail-biting experience! All of the pieces fit together perfectly, and the short flight to the Big Island went smoothly.

The need to transfer an alala chick from MBCC at the end of June doubled as a chance to stay a bit longer at KBCC to assist staffers with their many alala chicks. Although the MBCC alala chick was a couple of days younger than the kiwikiu chick, she weighed nearly 10 times as much as the kiwikiu! The size of this not-so-little female helped her maintain body heat, and I actually focused on making sure she didn’t overheat during her travels. Frequently checking to make sure she wasn’t too hot resulted in drawing a fair bit of attention from the Hawaiian Airlines flight attendants and fellow passengers. All of this curiosity made an excellent opportunity for educating the public and sharing about the plight of the alala! This second visit to KBCC was filled with great experiences, from the chance to educate the public about the alala to the opportunities to learn about hand-rearing of various ages of chicks and managing the many alala breeding pairs.

A palila chick gets weighed at KBCC.

Less than two weeks later, staff members at KBCC had their hands full of hungry (and LOUD—ear protection required!) alala chicks and needed an extra pair of hands… another chance for me to visit the Big Island and get more experience! By this point, I had the chick routine down and jumped right in to help out. In addition to the large number of alala chicks, KBCC had successfully hatched a palila chick. When the opportunity arose to take a break from feeding the “mob” of alala chicks, I assisted in hand-rearing the young palila. Working with the palila chick allowed me to gain invaluable hands-on experience with this intriguing species.

It’s been an amazing start to my position here at MBCC, and I’m looking forward to many more years working with and learning about these remarkable and unique species!

Natalie Staples is a research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, operated by San Diego Zoo Global.

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