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About Author: Michelle Smith

Posts by Michelle Smith

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‘Alala: Weighing In

`Alala Hekili shows his peers how weighing is done.

Keeping a close eye on the health of the birds is very important to us here at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. One valuable way we determine the health and body condition of a bird is through obtaining regular weights. (See also Zoo Hospital: What Do You Weigh?) Traditionally, we would weigh birds by catching them in a net, then transferring them to a box or a bag that could then be placed on a scale. This method required the time of multiple husbandry staff at once and subjected the birds to a certain amount of stress. Stress in birds can be dangerous, and we obviously like to keep our birds as stress-free as possible. Our solution was to convince our `alala to offer us their weight by landing on a freestanding platform that had been placed on a scale. This is called a “remote weight.”

2011 `alala chicks are already at ease with the process.

By using positive reinforcement, the birds of our `alala flock have been conditioned to perch on a freestanding platform that holds their food pans. When individuals are fed on these platforms consistently, it adds little to no stress to move that platform onto a scale to obtain a weight. With this procedure, one staff member can obtain the weights of many birds in one day, with the birds typically unaware of what is taking place!

Laha finds a loophole in the weigh-in process when he uses a stick and some gymnastics to retrieve some apple from the far side of the freestanding food platform.

The younger `alala from 2010 and 2011 have become experts at retrieving rewards from the platforms and have served as good examples for other birds to watch the process. Not everyone is easily convinced, however, and some of our `alala have proven a challenge. It seems as though some of our smarter adults are also rather stubborn, and the conditioning process has developed their crafty side! One of our mature males, Laha, seems determined to prevent us from weighing him and goes to great lengths in order to obtain treats while breaking the rules.

Michelle Smith is a research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, part of San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read her previous post, New Homes for the Growing Flock.

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New Homes for the Growing Flock

Goodbye, old nene pens...

As previously reported, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program has achieved notable success this year, increasing the `alala flock by 11 juveniles (see post, Record Breeding Season for ‘Alala)! With all these new youngsters cavorting around, and with further growth of the flock anticipated in future years, aviary space has become hot property. Consequently, construction of brand-new `alala aviaries began in late summer at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC). Each building will have six aviaries, and with a potential of four buildings being completed over this winter, we will increase our holding capacity significantly.

As the `alala flock has grown over the past 15 years, the majority of new aviary infrastructure has been developed at our sister facility, the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Big Island. Following the investment in new aviaries at MBCC, we will be able to increase our holding capacity and start to balance the `alala gene pool more equally between the two facilities. The new aviaries are being built primarily to house groups of youngsters and nonbreeders, allowing us to prioritize existing aviary space for breeding pairs.

... Hello, new 'alala aviaries!

As with all our `alala aviaries, the new ones will have a double layer of mesh on walls and roof. The fine, outer mesh is mosquito proof to protect the birds from harmful malaria-carrying mosquitoes. We will have the option of separating birds into individual units or opening hatch doors to allow birds to socialize with each other throughout the entire building. This will facilitate interactions between young birds and the development of their social skills, as well as maximize foraging opportunities that will stimulate the birds mentally and physically.

While we try to distance ourselves from the impressionable `alala, it is still important that all birds are monitored closely. The new aviaries will be built with small compartments called hack-boxes, where birds can be shifted for easy catch-up, weighing, or just a closer look. These provide a valuable tool for managing the birds with little contact with people, as well as minimizing the need to capture birds with a net.

A BIG thank you to all the donors who made this project possible. Approximately one third of the funding resulted from the Zoo’s popular fund-raising event, 2010’s Rendezvous In the Zoo (R*I*T*Z). The remainder has been allocated by our program partners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife. We are tremendously grateful for all the support. We are also very grateful to Zoe Builders for all the excellent work they have been doing so far. It is very exciting to see the progress that has been made with the `alala program, and the expansion taking place is a great step forward.

Michelle Smith is a research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous post, First Hatch of Hawaiian Bird Breeding Season.

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1st Hatch of Hawaiian Bird Breeding Season

Puaiohi #311 hatches

Greetings from the San Diego Zoo’s Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC)! We are starting to welcome chicks here at the MBCC for the 2010 breeding season. Over the summer, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) hopes to raise four different species of endangered native Hawaiian birds: the `alala (Hawaiian crow), Maui parrotbill, puaiohi (small Kauai thrush), and the palila. I am happy to announce that at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 6, we celebrated our first hatch of the season! The puaiohi chick is the 310th puaiohi to be hatched by the HEBCP and tipped the scales at approx 3.8 grams (0.13 ounces).

#310 at one day old

As a new staff member here at the MBCC, this is my first time participating in the breeding season, and I am especially excited to start off the summer with a strong and healthy chick. Hot on the heels of #310 (or should that be “hot on the hocks”?), puaiohi chick #311 hatched at approximately the same time the following evening (see photo). Here’s hoping for many more healthy chicks throughout the season!

Michelle Smith is a research associate for the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read a previous post about the program, Nene Awareness Day.

Other Hawaii bird posts:
Training an Alala for an Important Job
Maui Parrotbill Hatches
Puaiohi: 300th Chick
Palila: From Hatch to Wild Home