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About Author: Jeremy Hodges

Posts by Jeremy Hodges

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Saving Kauai’s Honeycreepers

Akikiki eggs

To start a captive breeding flock to help save the critically endangered akikiki, we collected two eggs each from a number of  nests.

Since it began in 1993, the San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) has worked with over a dozen native bird species found only on the Hawaiian Islands. The conservation status of these birds ranges from non-endangered surrogate species to critically endangered species that are on the brink of extinction.

The past decade has seen a precipitous decline in two species of Hawaii honeycreepers, the akikiki and akeke‘e. These two small species of forest birds are found only in a remote area on the island of Kauai and the wild population has been monitored for years. Due to the declines of both species in the wild, bird experts determined these two species should be raised in captivity as a safeguard against extinction. Based on that decision and with funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as a grant from the Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, our HEBCP team began planning the techniques and protocols to safely and successfully add these two new species to our facilities on both the Big Island and Maui.

Whenever possible, the best scenario for bringing a species into captivity is to collect eggs from nests out in the wild. There are many reasons why this is the preferred method. By collecting eggs, you eliminate the chance of bringing in a disease that an adult bird might have into the captive flock. It can also be very difficult to teach an adult bird from the wild to eat from a food pan and acclimate it to a captive diet. Another reason we didn’t want to start our captive flock by collecting adult birds out of the wild is that there are so few akikiki and akeke‘e left in Kauai’s forests and we didn’t want to negatively affect the wild population. When you collect a wild female’s eggs she almost always builds a new nest and lays a second clutch. Thus, you can build a captive flock without reducing the number of wild chicks produced.

One of the first decisions made by our team was to setup an egg house on Kauai instead of trying to transport eggs from there to our facilities on Maui or the Big Island. Akikiki and akeke‘e eggs are incredibly tiny, weighing between 1.2 and 2.5 grams. As a comparison, two plain M&Ms weigh 1.8 grams! These eggs are so delicate that they could become damaged during transport if they were flown to another island. With generous help from Jesse Fukushima from Kauai Realty, Inc. as well as Bryan and Tanya Tanaka, we rented a house on Kauai and shipped over all the equipment and tools we would need to care for the eggs and chicks we hoped to obtain. This included everything from incubators and brooders for the eggs and chicks to the food items that we would eventually be feeding.

Our next task was to decide what incubation, hatching, and rearing methods to use for these two new-to-us species. We had to think of everything from what temperature we would use to incubate the eggs to what food items we would feed the chicks. Fortunately for us, the akikiki and akeke‘e are insectivores (meaning most of their diet comes from insects) which are very similar to two other honeycreeper species that we have already worked with, the Hawaii creeper and the Hawaii akepa. Thus, with some small adjustments, we adopted successful protocols we had used with the Hawaii creeper and Hawaii akepa to use with our new species.

ladder

Out on a limb: Akikiki nest on terminal branches, so accessing the nests requires scaling great heights!

We had the house, we had the supplies, we had the protocols…the only thing left to do was to collect the eggs! Unfortunately, this was much easier said than done. Akikiki and akeke‘e nest in the remote Alakai Swamp on Kauai. There are no roads into this habitat, it can only be reached by a long, arduous seven-hour hike through the rainforest. Yet, getting to the birds’ territory is the easy part. Akikiki and akeke‘e build their nests at the ends of branches, sometimes 40 feet up in the air! The big question was: how would we reach the nests to harvest eggs? The State of Hawaii’s Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project (KFBRP) team identified a technique where a 40-foot ladder is raised to almost vertical and, instead of leaning against something, is then tied off onto anchors behind the ladder. This setup would allow our HEBCP staff to gain access to the nests that were previously too remote to collect from.

On March 26, 2015, after spending the previous day practicing the ladder techniques and transporting the ladder to the nest site, we set the ladder up and, with assistance from the KFBRP team, collected two eggs from an akikiki nest. The eggs were placed in a thermos and lowered from the nest by rope before being transferred into a battery-powered incubator. The ladder was then moved to a second akikiki nest and two more eggs were harvested and placed into the portable incubator, then carried back to camp on foot. A helicopter that was on standby was notified of our successful harvest and began flying to the landing zone near the camp. We carefully brought the eggs to the waiting helicopter and flew out of the swamp. The strenous hike into the location translates into a 20-minute helicopter ride to a landing zone just a few miles from the egg house. At the house, the eggs were weighed and candled. Candling the eggs is a process in which a bright light is shone through each egg to see which ones are fertile and how far along they are in development. With bated breath we candled our first egg. Inside, we saw active blood vessels and an embryo moving around—it was fertile! We candled the other three eggs and discovered the same thing. All four akikiki eggs were fertile and looked to be a few days away from hatching. We carefully put the eggs back into the incubator and let out a sigh of relief. We had successfully collected four fertile eggs from a brand new species of endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper, and if all goes well we should have four chicks in a few days time!

Check back regularly for more blogs to complete the story!

Jeremy Hodges is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo and seasonally participates as a research coordinator with the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.

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Congresswoman Visits Bird Conservation Center

Jeremy shows Congresswoman Hirono a mural of native Hawaiian birds. Photo credit: Marvin Buenconsejo

On September 1, 2010, the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center was excited to welcome Congresswoman Mazie Hirono, Hawaii’s two-term representative to Congress. The congresswoman and her staff were on the Big Island to participate in the first-day-of-issue ceremony for the U.S. Postal Service’s Hawaiian Rain Forest stamp series.

Congresswoman Hirono and staff toured our breeding facility, including our aviaries holding the adult `alala, palila, Maui parrotbills, and puaiohi.

Last stop on the tour was our large `alala flight aviary, housing ten rambunctious `alala chicks that recently hatched during the summer of 2010. The visitors got an up-close look at the sometimes awkward antics of these entertaining youngsters as they develop their flying and social skills in this large aviary.

The staff of the KBCC would like to say a warm “mahalo” to Congresswoman Hirono and her staff for taking time out of their busy schedules to visit our facility and take an interest in our captive breeding programs for some of Hawaii’s most threatened birds.

Jeremy Hodges is the research coordinator at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, operated by the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Hatching Additions to ‘Alala Flock.

Read more Hawaii Endangered Bird Project posts….

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Hatching Additions to `Alala Flock

These eight new alala chicks represent 10 percent of the world's population.

To me, one of the most exciting aspects of working with the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) is artificially incubating eggs. `Alala (or Hawaiian crow) eggs are incubated for approximately 22 days until they hatch (see Corvid Cupid). Once we pull an egg from the nest, we are able to monitor the embryo’s developmental progress by regularly candling the egg. Eventually, this enables us to identify the first step of the hatching process: the embryo’s beak pushing into the air cell. The air cell is the pocket of air at the top of the blunt end of the egg. With its beak in the air cell, the embryo’s lungs start to activate, which enables the blood to be drawn in from the vessels wrapped around the inside of the eggshell that had previously been used for gas exchange.

Just before or soon after an embryo first breaks through the eggshell (known as an external pip), we move the egg into a hatcher that is maintained at a constant temperature of 99 degrees Fahrenheit. The hatcher also needs to be very humid so that the hatching chick doesn’t dry out and stick to the membranes and residual albumen found inside the egg. Another important component of the hatching process is for the chick to know that there is a “parent bird” out there waiting for it to hatch. We simulate this by putting speakers inside the hatcher that we use to broadcast `alala vocalizations for a few minutes every hour. Periodically we also tap very gently on the eggs. The embryo often responds to these stimuli by increasing its efforts to hatch out of the egg. While some `alala embryos take up to 36 hours to hatch after the first external pip, we have been spoiled this season with some embryos hatching only 6 hours after they make their external pips. That translates into fewer sleepless nights for HEBCP staff, since externally pipped eggs require frequent monitoring throughout the night, in case we need to intervene and provide assistance.

Watch an `alala hatch!

With these efforts, the `alala flock of the HEBCP has been receiving the welcome addition of new chicks. The 2010 breeding season got off to an encouraging start, with the earliest `alala hatches in the history of the program. As of July 1, 2010, we have so far hatched 12 `alala chicks, with 11 surviving, currently ranging in age from just 1 day to 2 months. This brings the total known population of `alala up to 78 birds.

Each breeding season involves stress, sleepless nights, hard work, and occasionally even a few gray hairs for the staff of HEBCP. But more importantly, we each get the rewarding task of helping to bring `alala chicks into the world and the `alala back from the brink of extinction.

Jeremy Hodges is a research coordinator with the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read his previous post, Spring Cleaning in Hawaii.