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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 two separate 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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Say Hello to Antiki!

Caption

Tests show our Condor Cam chick is a female. Watching Condor Cam shows she seems to be wondering what’s on the other side of that ledge!


The results are in: Our California condor chick being raised on Condor Cam at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a female. Her name is “Antiki” (pronounced “an-TEE-kee”), a Chumash word that means “to recover, get well.” She is the seventeenth chick produced by parents Sisquoc and Shatash, and is the seventh that they have raised themselves, including the 2012 and 2013 Condor Cam stars: Saticoy (now flying free in southern California) and Cuyamaca (currently soaring free in Arizona). The pair’s other offspring were raised by keepers using a condor puppet so the chicks wouldn’t imprint on their human caretakers. Overall, Sisquoc and Shatash have proven to be great and reliable parents.

Some viewers have worried about the amount of time that Antiki spends alone in the nest—that she might be getting lonely. Yet, it’s important to look at the situation from a condor “point of view,” using what we know about their natural history.

California condors naturally have a one-egg clutch; in other words, there is never more than one chick in a nest. Although the chicks may appear lonely to us, we need to keep in mind that their social requirements are much different from ours. Of course, a human would be lonely being raised in isolation, but condors thrive in that situation. There is no competition from nest mates (ensuring plenty of food for growth), the single chick receives plenty of attention, preening, and protection from both parents (facilitating the proper social skills for when it’s time to leave the nest) and there is less waste that accumulating in the nest (reducing the possibilities for nest parasite infestation).

Sisquoc and Shatash visit Antiki several times a day for feeding and social interaction, giving her everything that she needs. If she was in distress, it would manifest in improper growth and unusual behaviors. She is in perfect health and showing excellent behaviors for a release candidate of this age, indicating that Sisquoc and Shatash are doing a textbook job!

We do not offer her “toys” or enrichment items, as her parents have provided several items in the nest to explore or play with: feathers, dried food items/bones, or cast hair pellets. We have seen Antiki (as well as every other condor that has been raised at the Safari Park) play with, sleep on, and re-distribute these items around the nest. Field observations have shown that chicks in wild nests in California, Arizona, and Mexico behave in the exact same manner. We don’t want to provide any unnaturally occurring items in the nest as playthings as this could encourage her to seek out similar items after she is released to the wild, possibly putting her in harm’s way. Remember, we are trying to foster behaviors that wild condors should have–avoiding human activity and hazardous, artificial situations. Survival rates for condors that become accustomed to humans and human activity are very low.

We are preparing for Antiki’s second health exam this week; it is usually scheduled when the chick is approximately 75 days old. Enjoy watching our little girl grow up and stay tuned for more updates!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Condor Cam Chick’s First Health Exam.

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10 Cats You Shouldn’t Cuddle With

There’s no doubt that domestic cats are cute and cuddly, but when it comes to their wild brothers and sisters, we strongly advise keeping your hands to yourself.

Connor by Darrell Ybarrondo

photo: Darrell Ybarrondo

With two- to three-inch long canine teeth, Connor would rather chow down than cuddle with you.

Jaguar by Bob Worthington

photo: Bob Worthington

We suggest you steer clear of Nindiri, or suffer the same fate as this poor rabbit.

Serval by Ion Moe

photo: Ion Moe

Kamari might look cute, but servals are perhaps the best hunters in the cat world. They make a kill in about half of all tries, which means you probably wouldn’t survive a snuggle session.

Snow leopard

The legendary snow leopard is rarely seen by humans. Cuddling with one? Don’t kid yourself.

Sumatran tiger

One look at Teddy and you know he isn’t in the mood for some TLC.

Cheetah by Stephen Moehle

photo: Stephen Moehle

With the ability to reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of this cheetah’s gaze.

Fishing cat by Bob Worthington

photo: Bob Worthington

If you’re thinking “Aw, this looks just like my fluffy Felix,” think again—fishing cats can be very aggressive.

Izu

Izu barely has enough patience for his cubs, so he probably isn’t interested in your warm embrace either.

Oshana by Ion Moe

photo: Ion Moe

The same is true for Oshana.

photo: Deric Wagner

photo: Deric Wagner

Mountain lion, puma, cougar, panther—this cat is known by more names than just about any other mammal—”cuddle buddy” isn’t one of them.

 

Jenn Beening is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, 11 Incredibly Awesome Animal Moms.