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Interns Help Endangered Birds

Ashley works with a Maui parrotbill.

We come from different backgrounds and all have different goals and aspirations. We take a three- to six-month break from our lives to travel to Maui and make the trek up the steep, windy road to the former minimum-security prison, now bird propagation facility for Hawaii’s endangered avifauna.

There is a lot to be gained as an intern at the San Diego Zoo Maui Bird Conservation Center. Our duties are essentially those of a staff member, and we get the opportunity to experience firsthand what it’s like to be an avian conservation biologist. With this role comes lots of responsibility and learning to ensure that these rare and exquisite birds get the best care possible. Our primary focus is avian husbandry and providing a stimulating environment to encourage reproductive success.

Each day begins at the early hour of 6:30, when we meet with the staff to discuss what’s going on with the birds and the facility. We then go our separate ways, based on our assignment for the day: `alala, nene, forest birds, or projects. Our first priority is to observe the birds’ behaviors and make sure they’re healthy. Then we clean their aviaries, feed out the diets that were prepared the day before, and possibly socialize breeding pairs, depending on the season and how the birds have been getting along. Each routine requires care and attention to detail.

While a typical day for interns involves a lot of cleaning, diet preparation, and detailed observation of the birds, there is still plenty of time for various projects and lots of scope for innovation. Many of the buildings here are old and in need of constant TLC. Therefore we get many opportunities to play mechanic/plumber/construction worker/landscaper. It’s pretty amazing what a bunch of bird nerds are able to accomplish! New ideas and projects are always welcome. The creation of new nest boxes by fellow intern Dustin Foote has proven to be an excellent enhancement for nene propagation, and the geese have happily begun laying eggs in these more private shelters.

Although only staff members are permitted to handle eggs and chicks, we take advantage of every opportunity to observe vital procedures such as egg candling, during which we can observe embryonic growth at each stage of development. It’s an exciting experience to watch an `alala egg’s development from the first day of candling to when it finally hatches

Interns play an important role in making the program the success that it is today. And while we contribute lots to the program, what we gain is every bit as important. We arrive as wide-eyed interns, eager to soak up every bit of the experience we can. We gain knowledge in captive bird care and artificial propagation, as well as an appreciation for Hawaii’s precious and endangered avifauna and the elaborate process to restore these birds’ populations in the wild.

No matter what our goals are in life—be it veterinary medicine, zoology, conservation, or even something entirely non-animal related—this internship provides us with a varied and enriching experience. Most importantly, when the birds bred by the program are thriving in the wild, contributing to the survival of their species, we will know that we helped make that happen…. And that’s pretty cool.

Ashley Higby is an intern at the San Diego Zoo’s Maui Bird Conservation Center.