About Author: Richard Switzer

Posts by Richard Switzer


`Alala Population Soars Past 100

Hatching can be an exhausting process! This brand-new 'alala rests after a successful hatch.

May 13 was an exciting day: our first `alala of the 2012 season hatched at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center! Just like all our previous `alala breeding seasons, this first chick was eagerly awaited and anxiously nurtured through its first few days (see video below). Over the past three weeks, another seven `alala chicks have hatched. Crucially, on May 31, we celebrated reaching the major milestone of 100 ‘alala in the entire world population! This is quite an achievement for a population that was down to a low of 20 individuals in 1994 and is currently considered extinct in the wild. In fact, following subsequent hatches, the population currently stands at 102 birds. We are hoping for several more chicks in the weeks to come.

This is one of Po Mahina's torpedo-shaped eggs.

This year, we have continued to apply the strategy of “assisted hatching” for several of our eggs. For example, our first two chicks are siblings from the same clutch of eggs, and both required assistance to hatch successfully. Their mother, #152 Po Mahina, is only 3 years old, and this was her very first clutch. Already it seems that Po Mahina has a tendency to lay long, narrow eggs, almost torpedo-shaped. This had implications for these two chicks; in the very final stages of the incubation period, each should have been ready to chisel the cap off its eggshell with the egg tooth on the beak. However, in both cases, the chick’s head and neck was wedged so tightly into the narrow egg that they were unable to rotate inside to cut through the shell. Consequently, these chicks were in serious danger of dying from exhaustion or asphyxiation before even having the chance to hatch. In both cases, we performed the avian equivalent of a Caesarian section. With great deliberation, we carefully peeled back the eggshell piece by piece, pausing to investigate for landmarks in the hatching process (such as the retraction of blood vessels and yolk sac) before finally releasing the head and gently extracting the chick from the remnants of its shell.

Helping an 'alala chick hatch takes steady hands!

Obviously, assisting the hatch of a chick from its shell is considered a last resort, a result of the breakdown in the chick’s normal, natural hatching processes. It is quite probable that the high incidence of assisted hatching cases is a consequence of inbreeding depression, caused by the shallow gene pool of the `alala flock. It is tremendously satisfying to watch other hatchlings burst out of their shell under their own steam!

Those first two chicks are now nearly a month old and barely recognizable from the pink, naked, and helpless neonates that were extracted from their shells. With a covering of pin feathers and equipped with a raucous voice to rowdily beg for food, they are making great progress. Eventually, these two will become members of our captive-breeding flock. However, with the `alala population now exceeding 100 birds, our Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program continues to be in a strong position to make plans with our partners for releasing and reestablishing `alala back in the wild.

Richard Switzer is an associate director of applied animal ecology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Maui Bird Conservation Center Open House.


Maui Bird Conservation Center: Open House

Get this cool logo on a T-shirt!

Although we occasionally host VIP tours at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC)—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 our resident birds, as well as share stories and the successes of the San Diego Zoo Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Consequently, we are excited to announce two important dates coming up.

The Maui Bird Conservation Center will be holding two “open house” events on Saturday, October 29, and Sunday, November 13. Activities will include presentations; a guided tour of the birds, aviaries, and grounds; and an opportunity to buy a splendid MBCC T-shirt (see logo above), plants, and other goodies.

If you are a Maui local, now is your chance to encounter some of Hawaii’s most endangered and iconic native birds. As the open house events are based exclusively around a limited number of guided tours throughout the day, it is essential to book a place in advance. Please phone our MBCC team at 808-572-0690 to reserve your spot.

We look forward to meeting you at MBCC!

Richard Switzer is the conservation program manager of the San Diego Zoo Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read his previous post, Hawaiian Birds: Pallets of Pellets.


Hawaiian Birds: Pallets of Pellets

Palila specialize in eating the seedpods and flowers of the mamane shrub.

Special birds have special tastes… or more appropriately, they have special nutritional requirements.

Operating managed-care bird propagation centers in the relatively remote location of the Hawaiian Islands comes with its own set of challenges; one of the major challenges is providing our birds with the specialist diets they require to keep them healthy and productive. With the exception of the nene, all the focal species of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program can be described as “softbills,” a loose, general term to describe birds that consume fruit, animal protein, and nectar, or somewhere within that spectrum. For instance, in the wild, `alala are recorded as consuming a wide variety of native fruits, invertebrates and their larvae, as well as the eggs and nestlings of other birds. As another example, Maui parrotbills primarily consume invertebrates and their larvae, as well as nectar and fruits.

A delivery of Kaytee pellets is unloaded.

While it may not be possible to replicate wild diets exactly, we aim to provide a representation of the wild diet that offers the same balanced nutritional composition, and this is where it becomes challenging. Catering to insectivorous tastes, we import mealworms and crickets from a company in Oahu, as well as laboriously culture waxmoth larvae in-house. These insects are particularly important for providing animal protein to stimulate breeding, build up a bird’s resources for egg-laying, and to fuel the growth of chicks. For `alala, we import mice (adult mice, “fuzzies,” and “pinkies”) from the mainland, which come shipped overnight on dry ice in insulated boxes. For the palila, which specialize in eating the seedpods and flowers of the mamane shrub, this means frequent treks up into the sub-alpine zone on the slopes of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea to harvest the crucial food source.

A food pan prepared for 'alala.

`Alala are generalists, using that famous corvid intelligence to opportunistically forage for a wide variety of food types. One of the most effective ways to offer a generalist softbill a healthy diet in managed care is to provide softbill pellets as a significant proportion of their diet. These softbill pellets are an all-in-one meal with a balance of carbohydrates, fats, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. This is where we are very fortunate to have the wonderful support of Michelle Goodman and the Kaytee Learning Center, the educational wing of the Kaytee animal nutrition company. For several years, Kaytee has generously donated its Exact Mynah/Toucan pellets to support our `alala program, as well as covering shipping costs from Wisconsin to Hawaii. This is no mean feat—with now over 90 `alala in the flock, that is a lot of beaks to feed, and the most recent shipment weighed half a ton!

Richard Switzer is the conservation program manager of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read his previous post, ‘Alala Season Begins with a Flurry.


Island Conservation

Richard admires a Phillipine eagle. Photo credit: Philippine Eagle Foundation

In September, conservation practitioners and environmental educators from across the Philippines, as well as the Pacific island of Pohnpei, gathered to participate in the Island Species-Led Action (ISLA) course run by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which was held in association with Iligan Institute of Technology, Mindanao State University, Philippines. The 10-day course was designed to teach participants proven and practical approaches to manage endangered species and habitats on islands, thereby enhancing existing knowledge and expertise and ultimately developing the local skill base and resources for conservation measures and initiatives.

In Hawaii, the native ecosystem has been decimated by a whole suite of threats—habitat destruction, introduced mammalian predators and plants, unsustainable hunting and introduced disease—resulting in the extinction of very significant numbers of native fauna and flora. But these threats are by no means unique to Hawaii. Islands have high levels of endemism, meaning a large proportion of the wildlife is unique to a specific island (or island group). But their ecosystems are fragile and very susceptible to threats, and their species particularly predisposed to extinction. This makes islands hotspots for conservation.

Based on my experiences with the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program and previous endeavors on the island of Mauritius, I was lucky enough to be invited to teach on the ISLA course. Having developed skills in captive propagation, reintroduction, and other fieldwork, I presented case studies and conservation techniques applicable to island ecosystems. It was hugely rewarding to share knowledge and perspectives with other conservation biologists facing similar island-focused challenges.

My fellow members of the ISLA course tutorial team were Durrell’s Jamie Copsey and Professor Carl Jones, with Dr. Olga Nuñeza, vice-chancellor of the Iligan Institute of Technology. My association with Durrell’s International Training Center goes back more than a decade, having once been a student there myself. In fact, for the past three summers, I have acted as external course director on their endangered species recovery course, based at Durrell’s headquarters on the island of Jersey in the U.K.

The warmth of the hospitality from our Philippine hosts and participants goes beyond words. But for the three international tutors, there was one other indisputable highlight: a field trip to Bukidnon Province in search of the Philippine eagle Pithecophaga jefferyi. Looking through a bird encyclopedia as a young boy, the Philippine eagle held almost mythical status; it was part of a small group of very notable bird species that I always dreamed of seeing in the flesh—due to it prominent rarity and challenge to observe—but never expected to see. After several hours of hiking along forest trails, the brief sight of an enormous, broad-winged eagle flying over the forest canopy made the flesh tingle. When we came face to face with birds at the captive breeding center of the Philippine Eagle Foundation, to say we were “awe-struck” is an understatement.

Richard Switzer is the conservation program manager, Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Record Breeding Season for ‘Alala.


Record Breeding Season for `Alala

Youngsters develop social skills in the large juvenile aviary.

As the end of our program year draws to a close, we are able to reflect back on the breeding season for the birds of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Most notable have been our achievements with the propagation of `alala. During 2010, we hatched 13 `alala chicks and raised 11 healthy youngsters (see `Alala Season: Encouraging Start). Unfortunately, one chick died very shortly after hatch, and another had to be euthanized due to congenital abnormalities. However, these totals represent a record for reproductive success since the inception of the `alala captive breeding program.

Just as exciting, our 11 young recruits bring the current population to a total of 77 known birds. In combination with the 8 youngsters raised in 2009, the `alala population has increased by 30 percent in 2 years. So we are definitely making progress toward species recovery for the `alala, whose entire population dropped to a low-point of approximately 20 birds in 1994.

However, the `alala is still a challenging species to propagate in managed care, with our avicultural efforts hindered by a disappointing hatch rate of healthy chicks. Consequently, we continue to manage the species intensively, utilizing the techniques of behavioral analysis, artificial incubation, and hand-rearing to maximize reproductive success.

With the rearing of this year’s 11 youngsters, we are delighted to have taken a significant leap away from the threat of extinction. But a flourishing captive population is just the first major phase toward the ultimate goal of reestablishing a viable population of `alala in the wild. In the hope and anticipation that this level of reproductive success will continue in future years, we can now begin to focus on the prospects and plans for reintroduction.

Richard Switzer is the conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.


‘Alala Season: Encouraging Start

‘Alala #160 hatches on May 3, 2010.

At 11 p.m. on Sunday, May 2, the first `alala (Hawaiian crow) chick of the 2010 season hatched at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center. The emergence of `Alala #159 represents the earliest captive hatch date in the history of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program, which has been raising `alala since 1993 (see post Naming ‘Alala Chicks). Although this chick’s start in life has not been totally uneventful (it required some assistance in hatching and subsequent medication), it has since perked up and now appears to be making good progress.

There are many challenges in incubating and hatching `alala eggs: the flock suffers from a notably high incidence of embryonic death, including failure to hatch. (See post Endangered Species Propagation Challenges). As an example, the earlier egg from the same clutch developed full term, but the embryo failed to make the external pip in the shell and appears to have suffered from incorrect positioning during the hatching process.

Despite the frequent heartbreak and sleepless nights that accompany the task of propagating `alala, we have been delighted by the hatching of two additional chicks, which hatched on May 3 and May 6 respectively. Together, these three “clutchmates” bring the world population of `alala up to a total of 70 known birds.

`Alala chicks can be particularly problematic during their first few weeks of life, which we strongly suspect to be the result of inbreeding within the very shallow gene pool; some chicks hatch weak, or with what appears to be a compromised immune system or even with congenital abnormalities. Therefore, we must proceed with great caution during the hand-rearing process.

There will undoubtedly be trials and tribulations ahead, but with several fertile eggs in the incubator, and with a number of females still to lay their first clutches, these three youngsters have provided us with a great source of encouragement at this early stage of the breeding season.

Richard Switzer is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read his previous post, Akepa: End of an Era (But What a Life!).

‘Alala #160 hatches.


‘Akepa: End of an Era (But What a Life!)

June 29, 2009, was a sad day for the staff of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program: the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) experienced the death of the last remaining Hawaii ‘akepa Loxops coccineus in our care. (There are still ‘akepa in the wild.)

Although this marks the end of an era, it gave the program staff a chance to reflect on the remarkable life of this wonderful little bird. Affectionately known as “Studbook #3,” he hatched in May 1999 from an egg collected from the wild—one of the first potential founders of the captive ‘akepa flock. This means that he was just over 10 years old at the time of his death. Not bad for a little guy typically weighing in at 10.2 grams or 0.36 ounces. (When you weigh only 10 grams, those extra 0.2 grams count for a lot!) But this is relatively heavy compared to an ‘akepa chick, which weighs less than 1 gram (0.03 ounces) at hatch—one of the smallest passerine species to have been raised artificially from the egg, and quite a challenge for our team of hand-rearers (see post, A Small but Mighty Akepa).

Although Hawaii ‘akepa are not one of Hawaii’s most critically endangered bird species, having the ‘akepa flock in managed care has enabled us to develop and refine techniques that we hope to use in the recovery of their more endangered relatives within the subfamily of Hawaiian honeycreepers. The remainder of the managed-care ‘akepa flock were eventually released in 2007, in an initial attempt to reestablish a wild population in a restored patch of forest on the Big Island known as Kipuka 21 (see post, Kipuka 21: A New Home for Our Creeper and ‘Akepa). However, due to an accident in his aviary as a fledgling, which resulted in a major part of one of his legs being amputated, #3 was considered not fully equipped to lead a healthy life in the wild. Instead, he was destined for our education aviary.

It was amazing to see how he thrived in the captive environment on only one leg. “Thrived” is perhaps an understatement, because he was well known to crowds of school children visiting KBCC for his dazzling acrobatics, whether he was hanging upside-down from the roof of his aviary, or a flash of orange feathers hot on the pursuit of fruit flies and moths, only to elegantly alight on a perch with perfect balance on his one good leg (scoring 10 points from the Russian judge).

But ‘Akepa #3 is not the only bird that we believe has set a managed care longevity record for its species. Puaiohi #5, better known as Green Mama, is still going strong at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) despite veterinary issues, having hatched in 1996. Puaiohi #9 is only a year behind her and is still siring offspring this season at the age of 12. Not to be outdone, Palila #11 has been laying fertile eggs at the grand old age of 13, while 12-year-old Maui Parrotbill #1 continues to chase females less than half his age.

It is not unusual for tropical bird species to lead long lives, since they do not experience the extreme challenges that the seasons bring for birds in temperate climes. Very often their annual reproductive rate is low, too—the antithesis of “Live fast, die young.” Furthermore, with a consistent, healthy food supply and veterinary care, birds in managed care frequently have the ability to outlive their wild counterparts. Of course, these smaller passerines cannot compete with the larger species, such as corvids, which are renowned for their longevity. Consequently, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program honors undoubtedly goes to Kalani, ‘alala studbook #27. At the ripe old age of 28, Kalani is the old man of the program. Although time has certainly mellowed him, he is reputed to be a grumpy old man, at that.

Richard Switzer is the Conservation Program Manager for the Institute for Conservation Research’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.

Read Richard’s previous post, Naming ‘Alala Chicks.


Naming ‘Alala Chicks

On Sunday, June 7, a group of students from Volcano School of Arts and Sciences, K’au High, and Pahala Elementary School were welcomed on a VIP visit to the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) on Hawaii. Four of the children were winners of a contest to name the four `alala youngsters successfully reared during the 2008 breeding season.

The contest was organized by Julie Williams, program coordinator and science resource teacher at Keakealani Outdoor Education Center, which drew in a large number of suggestions. The staff of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program who had reared the chicks then selected the four names that best suited their individual corvid characters.

The names chosen were:
Iolana – to soar
Ikaika – strong
`Imi pono – to seek goodness
Po`noe – night mist

The worthy winners and their families were then led on a tour of KBCC, where they got the chance to encounter three resident `alala in our education aviary and see puaiohi chicks being hand-reared. Before leaving, each winner was presented with a photographic portrait of the `alala that had received the name they suggested.

Each year, several thousand school children visit KBCC, thanks to programs run by Keakealani Outdoor Education Center, Kamehameha Schools, and other organizations. The visits provide the students with a deeper appreciation for the unique diversity of Hawaiian birds, their habitats and their threats, as well as smiles and even occasional wide-eyed wonderment. We also hope that the students leave with the inspiration to protect and conserve Hawaii’s ecosystems in the future.

Richard Switzer is the conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.

Read previous posts, ‘Alala Takes Extraordinary Flight and Puaiohi: 300th Chick.


Puaiohi: 300th Chick

On Tuesday, May 26, 2009, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program reached a new landmark in its species recovery program for the puaiohi Myadestes palmeri: this fluffy-downed chick (pictured) represents the 300th chick to hatch since managed-care propagation efforts began in 1996.

The puaiohi is one of the four target passerine (perching birds) species for our program’s bird breeding activities. In fact, the puaiohi is undoubtedly our most productive species; it was only April 2006 that marked the hatching of the 200th chick (see post, The 200th Puaiohi).

Even more crucially, the puaiohi is the subject of an ongoing release effort in its last stronghold, the Alakai Swamp, a wet upland plateau on the island of Kauai. Working with our partners, the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, we have released 176 puaiohi since 1998 (see post, Spreading the Puaiohi across the Alakai).

So far, chick #300 is growing rapidly and developing well, fueled by its diet of bee larvae, papaya, scrambled egg, cricket, and mealworm guts. Initially, hand-rearing feeds are painstakingly provided on the hour, 15 times per day; the frequency is reduced as the chick grows and becomes more robust. We hope this youngster will continue to make good progress and will either be retained in the breeding program at the Maui and Keauhou Bird Conservation Centers or will be released to boost the critically endangered population in the wild.

Richard Switzer is the conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.


Palila: From Hatch to Wild Home



An endangered palila pauses at the open hatch of its release aviary, taking one last glance at its surroundings before taking its flight to freedom (see image at right). This palila is one of seven that were airlifted by helicopter in early March 2009, up to a site known as Puu Mali, on the northern slopes of Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest volcano. All seven palila were hatched in previous breeding seasons at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) as part of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program’s ongoing effort to restore the palila population and thereby help to prevent the species’ extinction.

Up at Puu Mali, the program’s field crew eagerly anticipated the birds’ arrival and had prepared two release aviaries. For just over two weeks, the palila remained inside these release aviaries while orientating themselves to the mountainside that was soon to become their home. Up at an altitude of 8,000 feet (2,400 meters), Puu Mali experiences surprisingly bitter, cold nights, so this was also an opportunity for the palila to acclimate themselves to the novel temperatures while being fueled by the unlimited food provided by the field crew.

A released palila foraging in the mamane canopy, with bands and radio transmitter visible.

A released palila foraging in the mamane canopy, with bands and radio transmitter visible.

The palila Loxioides bailleui is endemic to the Big Island of Hawaii. It is restricted to the dry, subalpine scrubland of Mauna Kea, which supports forests of mamane trees. The mamane is a Hawaiian endemic tree belonging to the pea family that produces seedpods that are a vital food source for the palila. Not only do the palila primarily eat the “beans” of the mamane, but the moth caterpillars lurking inside the pods are thought to supply a valuable source of protein, particular for palila nestlings.

But the mamane forests, and therefore the palila, are under threat from feral cattle, sheep, and goats. These ungulates browse on the mamane saplings, preventing the new generation of mamane trees from establishing, and also strip bark and kill mature trees. The palila’s habitat has become so fragmented that the birds lack “corridors” that would enable them to migrate seasonally around the mountainside, following the fruiting of seedpods at different elevations. Additionally, feral cats and black rats have a major impact on nesting success as nest predators; it is thought that feral cats may even be causing a shift in population demographics, by depredating mature females incubating on the nest. Fortunately for the palila, the majority of its remnant habitat lies above the “mosquito line,” now estimated to be at an elevation of 5,000 feet, so avian malaria has impacted palila less than the many other critically endangered (and recently extinct) species of Hawaiian forest bird.

The majority of the palila population is found on the southwestern slopes of Mauna Kea, but we have been undertaking experimental releases of palila at Puu Mali, within the historic range of the species. In tandem with the releases, a team from the U.S. Geological Survey Biological Resources Division has translocated several cohorts of palila from the southwestern slopes of Mauna Kea. Preliminary evidence suggests that Puu Mali is able to support a population of palila long-term, despite only limited protection of the habitat from exotic predators and ungulates. Furthermore, released captive-bred birds appear to act as a “magnet” for the translocated flock that otherwise appears to have a strong fidelity to the southwestern slopes.

On Wednesday, March 18, 2009, the hatches of the release aviaries were opened for the fourth time since 2003. Within an hour, all seven birds were busy foraging in the canopy of mamane trees. As hoped, this spring appears to have provided a plentiful crop of mamane seedpods and flowers, with the result that the released birds have shown very little interest in returning to the open aviaries where supplemental food continues to be provided. In fact, this has enabled the released birds to forage far and wide, up to six miles (10 kilometers) away from the release site. This is presenting quite a challenge for the field crew who continue to monitor the success and survival of the birds by the use of radiotelemetry: long hikes up the cinder scarp and bumpy drives around the mountainside are a daily activity.

At the moment, the field team reports that five birds are being observed daily, alive and well, while a sixth bird has been proving more elusive to monitor. Unfortunately, the seventh bird was found dead a few days after release, apparently the victim of an introduced predator…a sad reflection of the ongoing threats to the palila population.

Meanwhile, news has just reached the field team that the palila flock at the KBCC has just started nest building. We now intend to intensify our release effort, with the goal of establishing a viable population at Puu Mali, so the program’s biologists eagerly await this season’s hatching of chicks, future recruits for release into the mamane forests on the slopes of Mauna Kea.

Richard Switzer is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

Read a previous blog about palila.
Read more blogs from Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program staff.