A couple weeks ago, we announced that one of our alala, Po Mahina, had hatched three chicks (see Alala: Does Mother Know Best?) There was a great deal of excitement here at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center during this milestone event. However, at the same time, we couldn’t help but be a little nervous. Would Po Mahina be able to feed and take care of these chicks all on her own?
Over the next few days, Po Mahina spent most of her time brooding her chicks, keeping them safe and warm. Alala chicks, like many bird species, are born naked and with their eyes closed. Watching on camera, we observed Po Mahina leaving the nest for short periods of time to bring food for the chicks. We provided her with the same types of food items that we feed the hand-raised alala chicks, which include an emphasis on animal protein to fuel growth (waxworms, crickets and chopped mice) as well as papaya and pellets. All three chicks would eagerly beg to be fed each time she returned to the nest.
Sadly, the youngest of the three chicks died after seven days. For the youngest chick to die in the nest is not an uncommon occurrence in the bird world. Frequently, older chicks have a couple of days’ head start to grow and beg for food, and they out-compete the youngest. Sometimes inexperienced parents may find a full nest of chicks challenging. It is almost certain that unfortunate occurrences such as this were normal for wild alala, particularly when food availability was limited in their environment. Whatever the cause, it was sad to witness the death of this chick. But we now know that we can comfortably inspect the chicks at five days old with minimal stress to the mother. This will, we hope, enable us to rescue a compromised chick and prevent this kind of mortality in the future.
The remaining two chicks are continuing to grow big and strong. When coming back after days off, we marvel at how quickly the chicks have grown and developed over only a few days. The chicks quickly went from naked baby birds to having sleek black-brown feathers, blue eyes, and a gray beak with a wide, pink gape. As the chicks’ feathers started to emerge, they were covered in a waxy, tubular coating called pin feathers. Po Mahina carefully preened away this waxy sheath to help her chicks’ new feathers unfurl.
Every five days we climb up a ladder and perform a quick nest check. The chicks are weighed to make sure they are following similar weight-gain patterns of the chicks that we hand raise. At the same time, we also give the chicks a quick health assessment. Each nest check takes less than 10 minutes, and afterward, we watch on camera as Po Mahina returns to the nest to make sure her chicks weren’t harmed.
Something interesting that we noticed during our nest checks is the chicks’ response to humans. Unlike hand-raised birds, who get excited and beg to humans for food, these chicks are a bit nervous and frightened by our presence. They hunker down into the nest, trying to be as still and quiet as possible. Although we want to minimize stress to the chicks during the nest checks, their behavior is a good sign. We want the alala to grow up behaving like the ones in the wild did, suspicious and wary of humans or other potential predators. When we release alala into their natural habitat in the future, these predator-avoidance behaviors may give them a greater chance of surviving the wild.
Po Mahina is doing a great job raising these chicks. It seems that motherhood comes very naturally to her. By analyzing both her and the chicks’ behavior on camera, we have (and still are) learning a great deal from her about how we might expect alala to raise their young in the wild. This helps us understand how we may be able to monitor and manage wild nests as part of future recovery efforts.
We will continue to bring more updates on the chicks’ growth and progress. There is still much to learn about parent-rearing alala. Some questions that we eagerly await for answers are: When will Po Mahina’s chicks work up the courage to fledge out of the nest? How long will they depend on her to feed them? How will the chicks react toward their keepers when we come to service the aviary every day?
Amy Kuhar is a research associate at San Diego Zoo Global’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.