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About Author: Amy Kuhar

Posts by Amy Kuhar

6

Alala Chicks Fledge!

At 35 days old, Po Mahina's chicks are almost ready to fledge.

At 35 days old, Po Mahina’s chicks are almost ready to fledge.

Another breeding season with the alala in Hawaii has flown by! Po Mahina’s chicks have grown so big, so fast (see post Alala Mom Shows How It’s Done). When the chicks reached 40 and 41 days old, we conducted our last nest check. We suspected that they might fledge soon. Rather than accidentally startle them out of the nest prematurely, we wanted to give them privacy so that they would fledge when they felt comfortable and safe. At this time, the chicks weighed around 410 grams or 14 ounces (younger chick) and 500 grams or 17 ounces (older chick) and were fully feathered, with the exception that their wing feathers remain shortened and their tail feathers stubby due to frequently rubbing against the nest.

Sexing results came back showing that the younger chick is a female and the older chick is a male, which we suspected due to our historical data of alala chick weights. As they have grown, their voices have also grown much louder, too; staff could easily hear the chicks begging to Po Mahina from all the way outside the building!

Our hand-raised alala chicks fledge in a gradual process. They are given large sticks to perch on and spend time going back and forth from their nest tubs to the perches that are both on ground level. Po Mahina’s nest, however, was about 15 feet above the ground. This had our staff wondering: would the chicks would make it out of the nest safely or make a crash landing? The small amount of knowledge that we have about the alala in the wild suggests that they nest in medium to large ohia trees, and that youngsters around 42 days old steadily start to venture along the adjacent tree branches and frequently come back to the nest to rest. To recreate a similar environment for the captive alala, we attached rope to the nest platform to give the chicks some highways from their nest, including down to the ground. Extra perches were also placed close to the nest to give the chicks easy access.

We watched, biting our nails, as the chicks soon became brave enough to stand on the ledge of their nest and contemplate the world below them. A couple weeks leading up to fledging, the chicks started to exercise their wings, flapping them vigorously at the nest, especially when Po Mahina would come around to bring food. Now that her chicks were almost adult size, the nest was crowded, and she spent most of her time watching over her chicks from a nearby perch.

At around noon on day 45, the male nestling became a fledgling! However, looking at the video footage, it seems it might not have been on purpose! The chick was perched at the ledge of the nest platform facing the nest, and he leaned a little bit too far backward, losing his balance and falling off. The chick’s ungraceful dismount had us racing up to the aviary to see if he was okay. The chick was crouched down on the ground with his feathers a little ruffled, but after a quick physical exam, we determined he wasn’t hurt but probably just a little stunned from the fall. A couple of hours later that same day, the younger chick, after carefully considering the jump from the nest, opened her wings and simply hopped to a nearby perch.

In the wild, alala fledglings can’t fly well for the first few weeks after fledging and spend a lot of time in the understory of the forest. This is when the alala are most vulnerable to predators like the io (Hawaii’s native hawk), cats, and mongooses. Our parent-reared chicks seemed to follow the same pattern. They stayed on perches lower to the ground for the first couple of weeks, sometimes making clumsy attempts to fly before crashing and tumbling to the ground, just like a new toddler learning to walk. Po Mahina paid close attention to them, bringing food to them often. Slowly, the chicks have learned to eat on their own, and now they eagerly come down to their food pans when they are fed every morning. However they still love to beg to Po Mahina, hoping for some free handouts! These chicks will stay with Po Mahina until just before the start of next breeding season. Then it will be time to move them into their own aviaries so that Po Mahina can build another nest and, hopefully, raise more chicks.

It has been such a great experience watching these chicks develop and being able to share this conservation story with the world. It’s another big step for the alala in their journey back to the wild. Aloha!

Amy Kuhar is a research associate at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii.

7

Alala Mom Shows How It’s Done

Po Mahina's chicks, 10 days after hatching, are still naked and blind and require constant care from their mother.

Po Mahina’s chicks, 10 days after hatching, are still naked and blind and require constant care from their mother.

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.

At 20 days old, the chicks' feathers are starting to come in.

At 20 days old, the chicks’ feathers are starting to come in.

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.

1

Alala: Does Mother Know Best?

Here is alala Pomahina's nest and two eggs.

These are two of the three eggs PoMahina was incubating; photo taken during one of several brief nest checks

Spring is the time of year when most birds are busy building nests, laying eggs, and raising hungry chicks. For the alala (Hawaiian crow), it has been more than 20 years since any members of the species have successfully raised their own young. Since its inception, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program has focused on pulling eggs for artificial incubation and hand-raising chicks as a means of maximizing the reproductive success of the tiny alala population. However, this spring there is change and new hope in the air! We are happy, but cautious, to announce that we have a female alala showing promising indications of successfully rearing her chicks!

Pulling alala eggs from the parents’ nest and then placing the eggs in incubators enables us to closely monitor the conditions that would allow the best chances for the eggs to hatch. It also gives the female an opportunity to lay more eggs. Once the chicks hatch, they are hand-reared until they are old enough to feed themselves. These alala parent pairs have great genetic value because they only have a few or no offspring, meaning their genes are not well represented in our flock’s family tree.

Over the last 4 years we have raised 53 alala chicks, and at the start of the 2013 season, the population stood at 108 birds. Now that we have a solid footing in the recovery effort, we are focusing our effort on natural incubation and parent-rearing for a select few alala pairs. One of our more prolific females, PoMahina, comes from a well-represented genetic line and already has three surviving offspring in the flock. This gives us the rare luxury of being able to allow her the chance to parent-rear.

Not surprisingly there are many questions and concerns about whether alala will be able to take care of their own offspring. All 108 alala in existence have been hand-raised. It has been speculated that there could be learned behaviors and an alala “culture” that may have been handed down through the generations in the wild that has been lost. Two years ago, an alala egg was given to a female, shortly before hatch, for her to attempt to foster-parent rear the chick. The foster mother was seen on camera feeding and caring for the chick, but sadly, the chick died a few days later. Unfortunately, not much is known about how alala reproduced in the wild. It is crucial that we use opportunities like this to learn as much as we can about the monitoring and management of alala nests to give the species a greater chance of survival in the wild. With the first release of alala potentially planned for 2014, the timing could not be any better!

In early April, PoMahina laid three eggs, and after a brief nest check to the eggs, we confirmed that all three were fertile. After approximately 23 days of incubation, three tiny chicks hatched on April 30, May 1, and May 2. Keep visiting the Hawaiian Birds blog for our updates on how the parent-rearing process is going!

Amy Kuhar is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii. Read her previous post, Pizza for the Birds.

1

Pizza for the Birds!

Amanda Maugans and Amy Kuhar are ready to spread the news about efforts to help Hawaii's native birds.

The Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) and the Flatbread Company of Maui teamed up for a fund-raiser on March 20 we called “Pizza for the Birds.” In addition to helping generate funding for MBCC, the event also served to educate and raise awareness about our efforts here.

The Flatbread Company is located in the quaint beach town of Paia; it is a local favorite but also attracts many tourists visiting the island. The restaurant is known for creating a great atmosphere and delicious wood-fired, clay-oven pizzas. Most of the ingredients used to make the delicious food are organic, free-range, and sourced from local farmers. Flatbread hosts a fund-raiser for nonprofits every Tuesday night. Each fund-raiser has a banner that’s hung on the walls, giving the restaurant a unique and ever changing décor. On March 20, it was our chance to shine. Our banner was hand made by interns at MBCC during their own personal time, showing dedication to these birds both on and off the clock.

In the weeks leading up to the event, we passed out flyers and invited friends to help spread the news around the Maui community about our fund-raiser. For the night of the event, Flatbread was packed! Even though it was a Tuesday, lots of tourists and local community members came out to show their support. All of the MBCC crew came out as well to talk about the birds and explain why the work is so important. At the door, we took turns handing out brochures and answering questions about our program. It was a great way to help educate and connect with the Maui community and tourists alike. Even though some of the patrons may have been unaware of the status and threats of the endangered Hawaiian avifauna when they arrived, we feel that they left with a greater understanding of the work that goes on at MBCC.

Flatbread Company donated to our program a portion of the cost of each pizza bought that night. The Maui community and tourists rallied to the cause and ate enough pizza to generate a substantial donation to the Maui Bird Conservation Center! The money will be a great help toward improving our facilities and aviaries for our breeding programs. The night was a huge success and a lot of fun. MBCC was happy to have a chance to talk to the community and help educate everyone. A big mahalo! to the Flatbread Company for being so generous and giving back to the community!

Amy Kuhar is an intern at the San Diego Zoo’s Maui Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii, part of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.