About Author: Joshua Kramer

Posts by Joshua Kramer


Sweet, Juicy Papaya‚—for the Birds!

What's on the menu? Egg, commercial diet, and juicy, sweet papaya!

What’s on the menu? Scrambled egg, commercial diet, and juicy, sweet papaya!

As people recover from their holiday feasting, now is a nice time to reflect on feeding Hawaiian birds in a captive breeding program.

One of the biggest challenges of managing a captive propagation center for Hawaiian birds is providing a nutritionally balanced diet replicating foods the birds would eat in the wild. Ideally, a captive diet is composed of the exact same natural fruits, nectars, and animal and insect proteins birds forage on while wandering in native Hawaiian forests. But collecting the exact food items these birds eat in the wild is impossible!

Although wild diets cannot be perfectly recreated, we strive to fashion a representation offering the same nutritional components. Prior to working with any new bird species, Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) staff review data on a species’ nutritional requirements and foraging behavior in the wild, to create diets for the birds in captivity. For instance, wild alala historically consumed many native fruits, and supplemented their fruit-heavy diet with invertebrates as well as the occasional egg and nestling of other bird species.

For birds in managed care, we replicate what is contained in wild alala diets by providing apple, melon, mixed veggies, and papaya in place of native fruits. The alala also receive scrambled egg, mealworms, and bird pellets that offer a balance of carbohydrates, fats, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. As you can see, these captive diets heavily feature food items available from commercial retailers.

Unfortunately, even commercially available foods can be difficult or expensive to obtain. This is where we benefit from close relationships with generous local supporters in our communities. For example, Kumu Farms in Wailuku, Maui, regularly donates organic, GMO-free papaya for the birds at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC). Although the MBCC is a relatively small facility, providing enough papaya for all almost 70 birds (representing 4 species) being bred in captivity is no small feat—but Kumu Farms donates papaya to help make this possible. And all the birds at MBCC eagerly devour Kumu Farm’s sweet, juicy gift!

Joshua Kramer is a research coordinator at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, operated by San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Maui Bird Conservation Center: Open House 2013.


Maui Bird Conservation Center: Open House 2013

What fun to view the alala, which is currently extinct in the wild...for now!

What fun to view the alala, which is currently extinct in the wild…for now!

Although we occasionally host VIP tours at the Maui Bird Conservation Center—usually school students or other special-interest groups—it is not often that we get the opportunity to open our doors. Being a non-public facility that focuses on captive breeding and reintroduction programs, we simply do not have the logistical capabilities to welcome visitors to MBCC throughout the year. However, our team is always delighted to introduce guests to the resident birds, as well as share stories and the successes of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Consequently, we are excited to announce two important dates coming up.

The Maui Bird Conservation Center will be holding “open house” events on Saturday, November 2, and Sunday, November 3, 2013. Everyone is welcome to visit our educational room featuring presentations, a children’s area, and fascinating information regarding Hawaii’s endangered birds. Also, three guided tours of the birds, aviaries, and grounds are offered each day of the open house at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. Reservations for the tours are required, and space is limited, so booking in advance is essential to secure a spot for you and your family and friends!

The Center's educational displays are updated for the open house.

The Center’s educational displays are updated for the open house.

If you are a Maui local, Hawaii resident, or visiting the islands, now is your chance to encounter some of Hawaii’s most endangered and iconic native birds. Please phone our team at 808-572-0690 to reserve your spot.
We look forward to meeting you at the Maui Bird Conservation Center!

Joshua Kramer is a research coordinator at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, operated by San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post,


Maui Youth Lend a Hand

We thank the Hawaii Youth Conservation Corps for their efforts!

Sometimes we can all use a helping hand. Do you remember a blog about the battle we fight against the invasive plant known as gorse? (See Gorse Crisis: Making Way for Native Plants.) Well, the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) benefited from the generous efforts of eight hard workers from the Hawaii Youth Conservation Corps (HYCC). They battled for two long days against a particularly stubborn patch of over-grown gorse and then placed native plants in the cleared space.

As background, the nonprofit organization Kupu, which is dedicated to providing opportunities for the youth of Hawaii, operates the HYCC. Kupu offers Hawaii’s young adults the chance to gain job training and life skills such as leadership, communication, responsibility, and teamwork, while encouraging service within the community. During their summer program, high school students spend six weeks as Americorps interns, assisting in the protection of the environment while learning about natural resource management through projects such as trail maintenance, native plant restoration, and coastal restoration, plus many other experiences.

Young koa and uki uki plants have a chance to thrive now at MBCC.

A crew visited MBCC after working at various sites on Maui and Kahoolawe for projects with The Nature Conservancy and the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project. Yet they still had the energy to tackle our gorse problem! Led by Christine Molina, the team leader who works as a teacher during the school year, the team of Carl, Issac, Kamana, King, Kyla, Pololou, and Stephanie split into two groups. As one group toiled away with saws and pruners to remove the gorse, the other team broke through the rooted soil with shovels to dig holes, which they filled from several large trays of native plants, donated by Anna Palomino, a local native Hawaiian plant expert who generously donates extra plants to MBCC. Their combined efforts made short work of an area that would have taken our MBCC team a month to clear and plant, with all of our other duties pulling at our attention.

Although the restoration area does not look especially spectacular now, with time and nurturing by the MBCC team, we hope the native plants will flourish and be a source of pride for the future, thanks to the wonderful and diligent work of the Hawaii Youth Conservation Corps.

Joshua Kramer is a research coordinator at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, operated by San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Hawaii: Native Birds and Plants.


Hawaii: Native Birds and Plants

Ohelo fruit is a native Hawaiian cranberry, favored by many frugivorous birds.

What is the connection between plants and birds? Plants can provide birds with shelter, nesting material and nest sites; food in the form of nectar, fruits and seeds, leaves. They can even harbor invertebrates. Birds, in return, protect plants from those invertebrates, assist in pollination, and disperse seeds. Sometimes, bird and plant species evolve “together” to the mutual benefit of both species, exemplified in Hawaii by the hoawa Pittosporum glabrum and its large seeds that lie within a tough outer shell. The `alala is the only known existing, native species that can deal with this robust fruit.

Susan Culliney, a masters student in collaboration with Colorado State University, has been studying `alala at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) to investigate their ecological relationships with a variety of native Hawaiian fruits, including hoawa. The study has focused on the `alala’s role in seed dispersal and germination, a role currently unfilled due to the `alala being extinct in the wild.

The MBCC greenhouse is bursting at the seams.

For many years now, the East Maui Irrigation Company has provided the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) staff with access to protected forest, where we carefully select small branches of ohia Metrosideros polymorpha and koa Acacia koa for perching. We collect native berries for dietary enrichment, giving potential release birds the opportunity to develop a “search image” for native fruits that will benefit them when they are released.

Recently, we have also begun to look for ways to develop our own native plant resources. The MBCC already sustains a few native plants from which we have gathered seeds. We have also been fortunate enough to obtain seeds from other sources, including the KBCC. We are delighted to have the assistance and advice of Anna Palomino, a local nursery owner who recently developed a native plant nursery within walking distance of the MBCC. Anna is propagating some of the more difficult native plants and has generously offered an “exchange” program: we bring her compromised plants, such as plants that have spent time in `alala aviaries, and we receive healthy ones to put into use around the facility. With this plant swap, we hope to provide a more consistent supply of healthy plants for aviaries while reducing our losses.

From these small seedlings, large koa trees will rapidly grow.

We have always made attempts at native plant propagation, with varying degrees of success; however, within the past year, our efforts really began to focus on designating a small amount of time every week on plant propagation, despite jam-packed days filled with bird husbandry, facility maintenance, and aviary upkeep. The facility greenhouse is now literally overflowing with native plant seedlings, to the point where we are hoping for a second greenhouse to house our propagation efforts!

Thanks to the green thumbs of Research Associate Michelle Smith, 10 species of native plants have sprouted, including pilo Coprosma spp., hoawa, and aalii Dodonaea viscose. Over 100 koa seedlings are 4 to 6 inches tall, and our most recent success is the germination of ohia seeds. Eventually, these plants will be valuable in multiple facets: we will distribute appropriate plants to our captive flock for enrichment and foraging.

Other plants will be planted on facility grounds; over the long-term, the plants will provide perching material and food for our captive birds and, we hope, create an oasis of native plant life that will entice wild native birds, such as `amakihi Hemignathus virens, to utilize facility grounds as habitat. Finally, seedlings may act as educational tools during tours, which visitors will be able to take home to promote the preservation of Hawaiian plants and habitats, helping to spread the kokua and aloha.

Joshua Kramer is a senior research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, managed by the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Nene Visitors.


Nene Visitors

Wild nene perch on the roof of the main building at MBCC, checking out the residents.

Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) staff member Michelle Smith snapped this photo on February 13, 2011, when she spotted two wild nene perched on the rooftop of the main facility building. Wild nene visiting MBCC is not an unusual event, although this prominent lookout is a novel location.

Many combinations of wild nene stop by MBCC, including small groups, breeding pairs, and lone individuals. We can’t be sure what attracts them—it could be the lush, green facility grass, the contented contact-calls of resident breeding pairs, or the super-luxurious nene accommodations (see post Nene: Movin’ On Up). In the past, lone wild males have shown up, and they hang around for several days, courting un-paired captive females. However, these bachelors eventually leave when they realize the relationship will be strictly platonic, due to the impediment of the pens’ fences and mesh roof. Over at Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Big Island, the pens lack a mesh roof, so the wild visitors are free to come and go, and consequently the daily interactions can resemble a soap opera.

This wild male nene is out of luck in his attempts to court a resident female.

During breeding season our resident adult nene become extremely protective of their goslings, and the presence of wild nene can become very aggravating for parents that are restricted by the constraints of their pen from chasing off territorial infringers. If we observe behaviors indicative of stress in our captive flock, steps are taken to gently encourage the wild nene to another area of the facility grounds. The recent visitors photographed by Michelle did not appear to disturb the captive flock, so they were left to perch in peace and stayed in place for most of the afternoon.

Our spirits are uplifted when we hear the calls of wild nene as they fly overhead. Frequently we observe released nene, which have been hatched and raised at MBCC, returning to the facility grounds. The released nene are recognizable by their identification leg bands. Both the sight of nene on the wing and an occasional visit represent confirmation that our efforts are benefiting island conservation.

Josh Kramer is a senior research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, part of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read his previous post, 200 Puaiohi Released!


200 Puaiohi Released!

A young puaiohi is released into the Alakai Wilderness Area.

The San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program achieved a monumental milestone on October 12 when we released 12 captive-bred puaiohi Myadestes palmeri, or Kauai thrush, into the Alakai Wilderness Area on the island of Kauai. This brings the total number of captive-bred puaiohi released to precisely 200. This was our 13th release in 12 years.

The puaiohi is found only on the Hawaiian island of Kauai and is now restricted to habitat within the Alakai Wilderness Area. Survey teams currently estimate the surviving population of wild puaiohi to be around 500 individuals, but accurate estimates are difficult due to rough terrain and the naturally secretive behavior of the species. Notably, this number is twice the population that was estimated in the late 1990s.

Following each captive-breeding season (see 1st Hatch of Hawaiian Bird Breeding Season), we decide which puaiohi to release and which to keep, based on genetics and demography of the captive population, with release candidates having the most represented genes in the captive population. After they are selected, each bird receives a physical examination and blood screening to ensure proper health and fitness for survival in the wild.

This year we decided on 12 juveniles for release; it is thought that younger birds are less likely to be chased off by resident adults (or each other), as their juvenile plumage displays them as non-threatening in established territories. Additionally, young birds have young minds, which are thought to be more flexible in adapting to their new habitat and wild food sources.

Early in the morning of October 5, we caught up the 12 release candidates and put them into their travel carriers. Departing from Kahului airport, Hawaiian Airlines treated the birds to near-celebrity status, not only by donating flights to Kauai, but also smoothing the processes of checking in, security screening, and boarding. Transferring birds between islands can be extremely stressful for both the birds and us, but Hawaiian Airlines personnel created a minimal-stress experience, for which we are tremendously grateful (the birds as well!).

Upon arrival on Kauai, the puaiohi were transported to the release site, where they settled into their acclimatization aviaries. Over the next week the birds experienced the new sights and sounds of the surrounding Kauai forest, sampled some of the local food provided daily by our fieldworkers (native berries such as lapalapa and pilo), and grew accustomed to the Alakai weather.

A released puaiohi surveys its new home.

Then, on October 12, after 7 days of becoming habituated to the Alakai, the 12 eager puaiohi emerged from their pre-release aviaries. They excitedly “attacked” the surrounding plant and invertebrate populations, foraging on juicy berries and scavenging through tree bark and moss clumps for tasty insects. Most of the birds left the area to explore other parts of the Alakai, although two birds remained faithful to the area around the release aviaries, benefiting from the supplemental food we provided. Of the two birds who stuck around, one stayed for 7 days post-release, while the other continued to frequent the release area when our field team exited the Alakai, 14 days after the aviaries had been opened for the release.

Normally, we would have a better idea of survival for the complete group of birds, but this year radio-transmitters were not put on the birds. Transmitters offer the opportunity to track the reclusive birds throughout the Alakai Wilderness Area, providing survival and dispersal information to monitoring teams. But data taken over the past 11 years indicates the success of releases: of the released birds whose status is known at the end of the 28-day post-release monitoring period, 66 percent are confirmed to be alive. Additionally, birds released in the past have been observed successfully breeding and adding to the wild population. So even though we don’t know for sure the fates of our youngsters released in October, we have high hopes they will settle in the Alakai, helping to create and maintain the future wild population of puaiohi.

A big mahalo for the help and support provided by Hawaiian Airlines, the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Program, and the Koke’e Resource Conservation Program, without whom the releases this year would not have been possible.

Joshua Kramer is a research associate with the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read his previous post, Nene Goslings Released on Maui.