Hawaiian Birds

Hawaiian Birds

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Gather the Goslings Before the Gale!

Staff used binoculars to get a better look at the nest without alarming the birds. Since the 1940s when there were fewer than 50 nene remaining, this species has made a remarkable turn-around, in part due to captive breeding efforts by San Diego Zoo Global.

Staff used binoculars to get a better look at the nest without alarming the birds. Since the 1940s when there were fewer than 50 nene remaining, this species has made a remarkable comeback, in part due to captive breeding efforts by San Diego Zoo Global.

On a cold and foggy winter morning, a group of Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) staff stood alongside biologist Kathleen Misajon and ecologist Darcy Hu, from the National Park Service. Just a few yards away under the umbrella of a sizable hapu‘u (tree fern) was a nene nest. The nene, (pronounced nay-nay), is Hawaii’s state bird and also happens to be the world’s rarest goose primarily due to excessive hunting and predation by introduced mammalian predators, like feral cats and mongooses. Underneath the incubating female nene we hoped to find four newly hatched goslings. A raging wind storm was headed straight for the Hawaiian Islands that night. If the nene family wasn’t moved that day, we feared the vulnerable goslings might not make it through the night. If any goslings were still in the process of hatching then we would need to postpone the move until the next day. We anxiously waited and watched as Kathleen slowly walked up to the nest…

Life at the KBCC gets a little more interesting when nene breeding season rolls around. Nene territory disputes are a common sight and consist of a lot of raucous honking. Sometimes there are even a few feathers floating around in the aftermath. Over the years we’ve kept close tabs on nene that visit our grounds. Female PA and male FL (named for their leg band combinations) are no strangers here and we have been closely following their interactions. It’s almost like watching a popular reality TV show!

PA hatched on KBCC grounds in 2003 and was moved, along with her previously released parents, to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. She was over a week old when her family was moved, and she returned to nest at KBCC. In an effort to avoid establishing a breeding population amongst the facility buildings, roads and parking areas, nesting families are now moved right after hatch to ensure that the goslings imprint on, and later breed in, the National Park. PA had a mate named FS and in 2008 and they had a nest of 4 eggs that failed to hatch. Unfortunately FS disappeared, never to be been seen again.

Male FL was also hatched in captivity and released into the wild. He originally paired up with a female named FX. Sadly, in 2008, just as FX and FL’s eggs were hatching, FX was mysteriously found dead near her nest and an egg had gone missing! FL was left to be a single dad to the three brand-new goslings. PA and FL paired up later that year and have been inseparable ever since. Last year, they successfully hatched and raised four goslings. (Read Nene Nest Fest 2014 to learn more.) We were anxious to see if they would repeat history this year.

We could tell female PA was about to lay eggs because the white area of her abdomen became much bigger and rounder than the male's.

We could tell female PA was about to lay eggs because the white area of her abdomen became much bigger and rounder than the male’s.

In early November, PA started to look gravid, meaning we could tell that she was carrying eggs. Nēnē don’t start sitting on the nest until they’ve laid all their eggs. This ensures that all eggs develop and hatch at the same time. Over the span of a few days PA would briefly disappear from FL’s side to lay her eggs but we weren’t sure where the nest was.

Eventually, Rosanna, our research coordinator, found the nest in a slightly startling way. Walking down a dirt road that leads to some of our alala aviaries Rosanna saw FL by the road, peacefully nibbling grass. Suddenly FL looked up and quickly took flight—flying low and straight at Rosanna’s head! Luckily, Rosanna has quick reflexes. She held up a clipboard to protect her head and thankfully, FL stopped short of his aerial attack, landing between Rosanna and a hapu‘u just off the side of the road. Nervously, Rosanna called out “I think I found PA’s nest!”

FL weighs in at no more than a bag of flour and stands less than 16 inches tall, but that doesn’t stop him from being a cutthroat protector of PA and her nest. He can instill fear in any stranger that dares to walk by his nest. The staff and interns have learned that FL is more bark than bite, but those less familiar with his antics, like the big burly contractors who have been working on our new alala aviaries, were wary about going down the road FL guarded. It was a funny sight to these grown men shaking in their boots because of FL!

This adorable ball of fluff is a one-day-old nene gosling, peeping loudly for his mother. Currently the wild nene population stands at about 2500 birds.

This adorable ball of fluff is a one-day-old nene gosling, peeping loudly for its mother. Currently, the wild nene population stands at about 2,500 birds.

On that cold and foggy morning, Kathleen slowly walked up to the nest. FL was having none of it. He spread his wings and started angrily hissing. We knew that Kathleen had spotted four goslings when she and Darcy quickly snatched up PA and FL in their arms. With the parents subdued, KBCC team members swooped in to scoop up the four goslings. The family was then gingerly placed in carriers and transported to their new home in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where the goslings would be able to grow up among other nene and become truly wild birds.

That night, intense gale-force winds slammed many parts of the Hawaii islands. The KBCC facility lost power and sustained some tree damage. The aftermath of the storm was hectic, but Kathleen was quick to send us an e-mail update on the nene family. PA, FL, and their goslings were safe and sound in their new home!

The staff eagerly waits for the day when PA and FL decide to come back and visit the KBCC property!

Amy Kuhar and Donnie Alverson are Research Associates at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii.

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Watch the Birdies! Open House at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center

Special displays allow curious visitors to understand the "why" and "how" of the program.

Special displays allow curious visitors to understand the “why” and “how” of the program.

Last December, we held our annual open house here at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center. This is our largest public event of the year and always an exciting time for us. Although we are normally closed to the public in order to focus on breeding our rare birds, this even is our chance to open our doors to those interested in learning about our program.

Since we are located on a remote ranch, we can only accept as many people as can fit in our shuttles for each tour—and the tours filled up fast again this year! It was so encouraging to see such an outpouring of interest and support from our local, island, and global community. In addition to many local residents, we had guests this year fly in from other islands and from as far away as Montana!

Our staff met visitors at our outer gate, situated everyone in the shuttles, and then drove guests through nearly three miles of beautiful, restored native forest to the facility. Upon arrival, everyone gathered inside our main office building to learn a little of the history of the program and to admire our fantastic mural depicting the array of unique wildlife and environments found here on the Big Island of Hawaii. We talked about the species we work with—Palila, ‘Alalā, Kiwikiu, and Puaiohi—and the multifaceted pressures they face in the wild.

The author acting as tour guide for a group of interested visitors.

The author acting as tour guide, giving visitors the inside story about the birds being bred at KBCC.

 

Next, everyone gathered around the windows to get a close up and personal view of our education birds, including two ‘alalā, before heading up to one of our forest bird barns to see our species in their breeding aviaries. It was wonderful to see smiles spread across the faces of everyone, young and old, as they watched some of the world’s rarest birds go about their business.

Throughout the tour, visitors demonstrated great interest and concern for the future of these special birds, and many of our staff received excellent questions such as “What can I do at home to help?” and “Is there a way for me to help restore the forests so our birds have somewhere to go?” We encourage people in our area wanting to help to plant native species such as ‘ōhi‘a lehua, in their yards to attract endemic forest birds. Getting rid of standing water on the property is another great way to make life easier for our birds since it eliminates breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which carry dangerous diseases for both humans and wildlife.

Our entire staff was available after the tours to talk with everyone, and it was so heartening to see such passion and respect for the birds that we work with on a daily basis. Open House is an important reminder for us that the work we do is valued, but most significantly it is our chance to give back to our community for their support, interest, and enthusiasm.

For all of you reading this post, thank you. I will say to you the same thing I said to my tours: Your being here (even if it is just through the Internet!) is a vital part of our program. We could breed birds all day long, but without your interest and support it would be for naught. You are an essential part of the future of these birds, and we at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center are proud to have your support and partnership as we move forward together to make this conservation story a success!

Chelsea McGimpsey is a research associate at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.

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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.

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Meeting Endangered Birds on a Tropical Island Getaway

The view as we drove the winding road to the Maui Bird Conservation Center was stunning!

The view as we drove the winding road to the Maui Bird Conservation Center was stunning!

As a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo, I always tell our guests that San Diego Zoo Global has dozens of conservation projects worldwide. But until recently I had never gotten to experience any of our off-site programs. While planning a vacation to the islands of Lanai and Maui in Hawaii, I realized “Hey—we have that bird facility over there!” I had heard about the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) and the work they do with critically endangered Hawaiian bird species, and I was lucky to be able to visit the MBCC, even though the facility is typically closed to the public.

At left are the bird holding areas.

At left are the bird holding areas.

My companion and I drove straight from the Lanai ferry up an exceedingly narrow and twisty road with some amazing vistas to the Maui Bird Conservation Center, stopping first to pick up some thank-you donuts for the staff. If there’s one thing I know about zoo folk, they love surprise yummy treats, and the reception the donuts got was very gratifying! The MBCC has only a few permanent staff, supplemented by a handful of post-college interns each year. They do everything themselves, including mowing the lawn and caring for the two back-up generators. The interns live on site and are allowed to borrow the car to go into town just twice per week.

We were met by Michelle Smith, who gave us a fantastic tour of the facility and answered all of our questions. The first thing I learned was that the MBCC’s facility is a former minimum-security prison! Its clinic is located in the prison’s old dentist’s office and is fully equipped with an X-ray machine and a complete stock of medicines regulated and monitored by San Diego Zoo veterinarians. Michelle told us that they are able to contact a vet 24-hours per day, and one visits every six months to do a comprehensive check-up on all the birds. Most of the day-to-day medical issues are handled by the MBCC staff, and they’ve even had emergency procedures narrated to them over the phone by the Zoo’s veterinarians!

An intern prepares bird diets at the MBCC, a task I can relate to!

An intern prepares bird diets at the MBCC, a task I can relate to!

Although it was not breeding season for any of the birds, Michelle was able to show us their old but functional incubators. Eggs are transported from the nest to the incubator in a warm thermos full of millet seed! There is also an intensive care unit, like an incubator for premature human babies, where the young chicks grow. Alala and kiwikiu chicks are fed with a hand puppet so they don’t associate food with humans. Eggs that are hand-incubated are cared for intensively and every change recorded in detail. Rate of water loss is very important to monitor, and a machine called an Egg Buddy can even sense and record the heartbeat of the unborn chicks. Michelle explained the hatching process and some of the interventions that the staff has to do to help chicks hatch.

We peeked in on an intern making diets, a process that I am very familiar with! The birds eat mostly fruits and some insects. The alala get some mice because in the wild they would eat eggs and nestlings, though they eat much more fruit than other species of crows. The birds’ diets are put in bowls and served up on stainless-steel trays left over from the prison!

We saw a handsome adult male and three juvenile palila. In the wild, they eat only the pods and grubs found on the mamane tree and are very tenacious about their territory; that is, you can't move them from a dangerous area, because they'll just go back.

We saw a handsome adult male and three juvenile palila. In the wild, they eat only the pods and grubs found on the mamane tree and are very tenacious about their territory; that is, you can’t move them from a dangerous area, because they’ll just go back.

To actually see the birds, we walked down a dirt pathway past a (nonnative) pine grove. The air was surprisingly cool and fresh, due to our elevation on the northwestern slope of Mount Haleakala above the “cowboy town” of Makawao. The MBCC is on state-owned land, and the developed part is about eight acres. We got to enter “Forest Bird Barn I” to see three small forest bird species. I was interested to learn that the four species at the MBCC are from all around Hawaii, not just Maui itself.

The palila is a pretty little gray bird with a yellow head, found only on the high-elevation slopes of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii. The puaiohi or small Kauai thrush is an un-prepossessing brown bird. Puaiohi are easy to raise, and are the species that new staff gets to work with first. The kiwikiu was called the Maui parrotbill until recently, when it was given a Hawaiian name. It’s a really cute little bird with a big bill reminiscent of a parrot’s.

Leaving the Forest Bird building, we went to look at the stars of the MBCC: the alala or Hawaiian crows, which are Extinct In The Wild. I capitalized that because I felt awestruck to get to see these birds. There are only 114 alala on the planet, 42 of which are at the MBCC, and the rest of which are on the Island of Hawaii at MBCC’s sister facility, the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, with one exception. They are strikingly different from regular crows in size, and they made a variety of startlingly loud and odd vocalizations the whole time we were there.

It is considered the only Kauai forest bird with a stable population – even though that population is only 500 individuals. This bird is not being bred at the MBCC very much, because they are stable in the wild - however, observations of the wild birds are very important to ensure that the population is truly sustainable.

The puaiohi is considered the only Kauai forest bird with a stable population, even though that population is only 500 individuals.

The only alala not in Hawaii is Kinohi, who lives in California at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research! He is extremely valuable genetically because his mother, a founder, has no other offspring and neither does he. If we can get babies from Kinohi, it will increase the genetic pool by a whole other crow. The problem is that Kinohe is imprinted and not willing to breed with female crows. Scientists at the Institute have been working to get semen samples from him, but Kinohi has been producing only low concentrations of sperm. (see post Alala: We’re Getting Closer.) Michelle was hopeful that they will one day be able to try artificial insemination with a sample from Kinohi. The odds are stacked against it, but I think that if anyone can do it, our scientists can!

I was very impressed by the facility, which was clean and neat. The staff was so kind and excited about having us, I felt like a VIP! It was really special to get to see the birds and hear all about them, especially since the MBCC is typically closed to the public. At the same time, it was sad to hear about the challenges that these species face across all the islands but heartening to hear the determination and enthusiasm shared by the staff. I would encourage anyone to visit during the MBCC’s annual open house if you find yourself on Maui early next November!

Susan Patch is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo.

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Alala Breeding Season a Success

alala puppet fedPartially feathered and squawking for meals, `alalā chicks at San Diego Zoo Global’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center keep animal care staff busy. With nine new chicks this year, the rare bird’s population now numbers 114. `Alalā (also known as Hawaiian crows) are extinct in the wild, and the entire remaining population is managed in captivity through a collaborative effort by the Hawai`i Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP). Some of the chicks are fed and cared for by animal care staff, which the chicks never see to ensure they do not imprint on humans.

“`Alalā are very intelligent birds and are susceptible to imprinting”, said Bryce Masuda, program manager for San Diego Zoo Global. “We use puppets to hand-rear and feed the birds when they are young to keep them from imprinting onto us, so they will behave naturally as adults.”

The last `alalā were recorded in their Hawaiian forest natural habitat in 2002, where they were threatened by habitat destruction, introduced predators and avian disease. The HEBCP has been working with the species in managed care since 1993, bringing the population from a low of only 20 individuals to 114 today.

The Hawai`i Endangered Bird Conservation Program is a field program of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, in partnership with the State of Hawai’i Division of Forestry and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Planning and preparation efforts are currently underway to restore `alalā back into its vital niche within the forest ecosystem on the Big Island of Hawai`i. It is hoped that the first reintroduction activities will begin in the near future.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291

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Alala Chicks: Time to Move Out of Mom and Dad’s House!

Three alala chicks share a perch soon after being moved into a new aviary together.

Three alala chicks share a perch soon after being moved into a new aviary together.

Last year was momentous at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii. For the first time in over 20 years, alala (Hawaiian crows) successfully hatched and reared their own chicks in managed care, completely unassisted! Two chicks (a male and female) were raised by their mom, Po Mahina. To learn about her parent-rearing journey, read Alala: Does Mother Know Best? Another male chick was raised by a caring alala mom named Lolii. This gave us a total of three parent-reared chicks!

Before the species went extinct in the wild in 2002, young alala chicks were known to live with their parents until the following breeding season. Today I am happy to report that these three parent-reared chicks are doing fantastic. However, they just went through an experience that many animal species (humans included!) go through: the time to stretch your wings and move out of mom and dad’s house!

We wanted to move the chicks gradually and as stress-free as possible, so a few weeks ago we shifted them to the chamber next door to their parents. This way the chicks could still see, hear, and interact with their parents. Both the chicks and their parents hardly seemed bothered by this change! Then it was time for the big move. All of our alala are conditioned to come down to a hack box (a small room with sliding hatch doors) every day for their normal food pan. On the morning of the big move, the chicks were shut into their hack box, then quickly netted and placed into animal carriers. The chicks were then taken to their new home in a separate aviary, just a short car ride down the road. Once there, all three chicks were released into their new aviary at the same time.

Since Lolii’s chick was an only child, this was the first time for him to meet other chicks. We worried that he might have a harder time adjusting to living with other chicks, because getting used to new roommates takes some adjustment, whether you are bird or human! We also worried that Po Mahina’s chicks might gang up and bully Lolii’s chick, so we closely observed their interactions following the release. Our worry was needless, because everyone quickly worked out their differences, and at the end of the day, all three chicks were sitting together on the same perch!

What’s next for these three youngsters? For now, they will probably stay together for a couple of years until they become mature alala, around three years of age. During that time, their blue eyes will slowly start to transition to dark brown. Their bright pink gapes (corners of the mouth) will turn black like an adult’s. Instead of their boisterous begging vocalizations, they will soon sound like adults and call out to each other with an amazing repertoire of calls and songs.

What about those super moms? Po Mahina and Lolii’s breeding and nesting instincts are starting to kick back into gear. Now it’s time to turn on our alala video cameras so we can watch the parent-rearing process start all over again!

Amy Kuhar is a research associate at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii. Read her previous post, Nene Nest Fest 2014!

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An Alala Defiant and Bold

Nahoa rebuilds his perching ability in a custom-made sling.

Nahoa rebuilds his perching ability in a custom-made sling.

It hasn’t been an easy year here at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. February brought unusually severe flooding in upcountry Maui, where we are located. The gulch that runs through the property turned into a raging river for the first time in recent memory. Thankfully, there was no damage to the facility. We believe that this amount of rain, followed by cycles of dry and wet weather in the following months, provided ideal conditions for the dispersal and growth of a fungus called Aspergillus. It is ubiquitous in the environment, but under particular circumstances can cause major health issues for captive birds. The birds breathe in the fungal spores, which can then germinate in the lungs, and the fungus proliferates throughout the body. Typically, the results of the aspergillosis infection are fatal.

At the end of May and in early June 2013, we first started seeing the aspergillosis symptoms (labored breathing and lethargy) in two of our forest birds species: the puaiohi or small Kauai thrush and the kiwikiu or Maui parrotbill. Soon after, we put every single bird in our care on a prophylactic anti-fungal medication to protect each against the aspergillosis infection. As the alala or Hawaiian crow species captain, I feared the infection would soon start affecting the alala, which are extinct in the wild; the captive population is all that exists. The first alala to show signs of ill health was one of our male breeders, Nahoa.

Nahoa began behaving oddly one morning in early June. We noticed him perched low, he was lethargic, and looked like he didn’t feel well. A remote weight obtained by staff revealed a significant drop in body weight as well. We immediately put Nahoa on a treatment dose of the anti-fungal medication, as well as an antibiotic. Since the stress of catching up these birds can make the fungal infection significantly worse, we dosed his food with medications and made changes to his aviary so he could easily get to his food, water, and a supplemental heat lamp for warmth.

Nahoa receives leg physiotherapy.

Nahoa receives leg physiotherapy.

Nahoa began to improve, and his appetite increased. By July, Nahoa was well enough to be caught up in his aviary when Dr. Pat Morris and Kim Williams, both from the San Diego Zoo’s veterinary team, were here for their biannual veterinary visit. The goal was for Dr. Pat to give Nahoa a physical examination and obtain a blood sample, which confirmed our suspicions of an aspergillosis infection. Nahoa reacted well to the procedure, and we released him back into his aviary. He continued to improve and even started flying short distances again.

Unfortunately, Nahoa suddenly took a turn for the worse near the end of July and had to be moved into an AICU (avian intensive care unit) in our vet clinic. Nahoa was physically very weak and showed symptoms of poor mobility and lack of coordination; he was also having difficulty feeding himself. After being moved into the vet clinic, we began a critical-care regimen for Nahoa consisting of tube-feeding, medicating, and injecting rehydrating fluids under his skin. He also received physical therapy twice a day to keep his muscles in shape while in his weakened state. We rigged up a specially created sling for Nahoa to spend time in to build up his perching ability. Slowly, he gained weight and strength. His demeanor started to improve as well. We were all pretty excited when he began to return to his feisty self again by trying to bite us!

Nahoa's health continues to improve, thanks to the hard work of many!

Nahoa’s health continues to improve, thanks to the hard work of many!

Miraculously, on August 31, we found Nahoa in his vet clinic enclosure standing up, unassisted—what a relief! He then quickly graduated out of the sling and no longer needed physical therapy on his legs. Within the week, he started spending time in a small, outside aviary, hopping around and exploring his new environment. On September 26, Nahoa received his last tube-feeding treatment and is now maintaining his weight on his own.

Every alala hatched into the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program receives a Hawaiian name with a significant meaning. The name Nahoa means defiant and bold, and, thus far, he has certainly lived up to it! Nahoa has surprised us all by the progress he’s made over the past few months. Based on his initial symptoms and poor prognosis, we were worried that he wouldn’t survive this infection. He has certainly beaten the odds so far and proven us all wrong. Nahoa still has a long way to go before he’s in the clear and back to his normal self, but we’re all staying positive that he’ll defeat this illness!

We received a great deal of help keeping Nahoa and the rest of the captive flock fighting through this aspergillosis infection. A BIG mahalo (thank you) to all of those who helped us throughout the past few months: Dr. Pat Morris and the rest of the veterinary staff, who provided constant advice and guidance; Christine Miller, RVT, who flew to Maui from San Diego on 24-hour’s notice to show us intensive care techniques; Keauhou Bird Conservation Center staff, who gave us moral support (and baked goods!); and our amazing interns who took everything in stride and helped out in any and every way possible (Caitlin Marrow, Melissa Whitfield, Christopher Butler, Karla Compton, and Dom D’Amico).

Natalie Staples is a research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Have Bird, Will Travel.

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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,

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Alala Chicks Fledge!

At 35 days old, Po Mahina's chicks are almost ready to fledge.

At 35 days old, Po Mahina’s chicks are almost ready to fledge.

Another breeding season with the alala in Hawaii has flown by! Po Mahina’s chicks have grown so big, so fast (see post Alala Mom Shows How It’s Done). When the chicks reached 40 and 41 days old, we conducted our last nest check. We suspected that they might fledge soon. Rather than accidentally startle them out of the nest prematurely, we wanted to give them privacy so that they would fledge when they felt comfortable and safe. At this time, the chicks weighed around 410 grams or 14 ounces (younger chick) and 500 grams or 17 ounces (older chick) and were fully feathered, with the exception that their wing feathers remain shortened and their tail feathers stubby due to frequently rubbing against the nest.

Sexing results came back showing that the younger chick is a female and the older chick is a male, which we suspected due to our historical data of alala chick weights. As they have grown, their voices have also grown much louder, too; staff could easily hear the chicks begging to Po Mahina from all the way outside the building!

Our hand-raised alala chicks fledge in a gradual process. They are given large sticks to perch on and spend time going back and forth from their nest tubs to the perches that are both on ground level. Po Mahina’s nest, however, was about 15 feet above the ground. This had our staff wondering: would the chicks would make it out of the nest safely or make a crash landing? The small amount of knowledge that we have about the alala in the wild suggests that they nest in medium to large ohia trees, and that youngsters around 42 days old steadily start to venture along the adjacent tree branches and frequently come back to the nest to rest. To recreate a similar environment for the captive alala, we attached rope to the nest platform to give the chicks some highways from their nest, including down to the ground. Extra perches were also placed close to the nest to give the chicks easy access.

We watched, biting our nails, as the chicks soon became brave enough to stand on the ledge of their nest and contemplate the world below them. A couple weeks leading up to fledging, the chicks started to exercise their wings, flapping them vigorously at the nest, especially when Po Mahina would come around to bring food. Now that her chicks were almost adult size, the nest was crowded, and she spent most of her time watching over her chicks from a nearby perch.

At around noon on day 45, the male nestling became a fledgling! However, looking at the video footage, it seems it might not have been on purpose! The chick was perched at the ledge of the nest platform facing the nest, and he leaned a little bit too far backward, losing his balance and falling off. The chick’s ungraceful dismount had us racing up to the aviary to see if he was okay. The chick was crouched down on the ground with his feathers a little ruffled, but after a quick physical exam, we determined he wasn’t hurt but probably just a little stunned from the fall. A couple of hours later that same day, the younger chick, after carefully considering the jump from the nest, opened her wings and simply hopped to a nearby perch.

In the wild, alala fledglings can’t fly well for the first few weeks after fledging and spend a lot of time in the understory of the forest. This is when the alala are most vulnerable to predators like the io (Hawaii’s native hawk), cats, and mongooses. Our parent-reared chicks seemed to follow the same pattern. They stayed on perches lower to the ground for the first couple of weeks, sometimes making clumsy attempts to fly before crashing and tumbling to the ground, just like a new toddler learning to walk. Po Mahina paid close attention to them, bringing food to them often. Slowly, the chicks have learned to eat on their own, and now they eagerly come down to their food pans when they are fed every morning. However they still love to beg to Po Mahina, hoping for some free handouts! These chicks will stay with Po Mahina until just before the start of next breeding season. Then it will be time to move them into their own aviaries so that Po Mahina can build another nest and, hopefully, raise more chicks.

It has been such a great experience watching these chicks develop and being able to share this conservation story with the world. It’s another big step for the alala in their journey back to the wild. Aloha!

Amy Kuhar is a research associate at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii.

7

Alala Mom Shows How It’s Done

Po Mahina's chicks, 10 days after hatching, are still naked and blind and require constant care from their mother.

Po Mahina’s chicks, 10 days after hatching, are still naked and blind and require constant care from their mother.

A couple weeks ago, we announced that one of our alala, Po Mahina, had hatched three chicks (see Alala: Does Mother Know Best?) There was a great deal of excitement here at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center during this milestone event. However, at the same time, we couldn’t help but be a little nervous. Would Po Mahina be able to feed and take care of these chicks all on her own?

Over the next few days, Po Mahina spent most of her time brooding her chicks, keeping them safe and warm. Alala chicks, like many bird species, are born naked and with their eyes closed. Watching on camera, we observed Po Mahina leaving the nest for short periods of time to bring food for the chicks. We provided her with the same types of food items that we feed the hand-raised alala chicks, which include an emphasis on animal protein to fuel growth (waxworms, crickets and chopped mice) as well as papaya and pellets. All three chicks would eagerly beg to be fed each time she returned to the nest.

Sadly, the youngest of the three chicks died after seven days. For the youngest chick to die in the nest is not an uncommon occurrence in the bird world. Frequently, older chicks have a couple of days’ head start to grow and beg for food, and they out-compete the youngest. Sometimes inexperienced parents may find a full nest of chicks challenging. It is almost certain that unfortunate occurrences such as this were normal for wild alala, particularly when food availability was limited in their environment. Whatever the cause, it was sad to witness the death of this chick. But we now know that we can comfortably inspect the chicks at five days old with minimal stress to the mother. This will, we hope, enable us to rescue a compromised chick and prevent this kind of mortality in the future.

The remaining two chicks are continuing to grow big and strong. When coming back after days off, we marvel at how quickly the chicks have grown and developed over only a few days. The chicks quickly went from naked baby birds to having sleek black-brown feathers, blue eyes, and a gray beak with a wide, pink gape. As the chicks’ feathers started to emerge, they were covered in a waxy, tubular coating called pin feathers. Po Mahina carefully preened away this waxy sheath to help her chicks’ new feathers unfurl.

Every five days we climb up a ladder and perform a quick nest check. The chicks are weighed to make sure they are following similar weight-gain patterns of the chicks that we hand raise. At the same time, we also give the chicks a quick health assessment. Each nest check takes less than 10 minutes, and afterward, we watch on camera as Po Mahina returns to the nest to make sure her chicks weren’t harmed.

At 20 days old, the chicks' feathers are starting to come in.

At 20 days old, the chicks’ feathers are starting to come in.

Something interesting that we noticed during our nest checks is the chicks’ response to humans. Unlike hand-raised birds, who get excited and beg to humans for food, these chicks are a bit nervous and frightened by our presence. They hunker down into the nest, trying to be as still and quiet as possible. Although we want to minimize stress to the chicks during the nest checks, their behavior is a good sign. We want the alala to grow up behaving like the ones in the wild did, suspicious and wary of humans or other potential predators. When we release alala into their natural habitat in the future, these predator-avoidance behaviors may give them a greater chance of surviving the wild.

Po Mahina is doing a great job raising these chicks. It seems that motherhood comes very naturally to her. By analyzing both her and the chicks’ behavior on camera, we have (and still are) learning a great deal from her about how we might expect alala to raise their young in the wild. This helps us understand how we may be able to monitor and manage wild nests as part of future recovery efforts.

We will continue to bring more updates on the chicks’ growth and progress. There is still much to learn about parent-rearing alala. Some questions that we eagerly await for answers are: When will Po Mahina’s chicks work up the courage to fledge out of the nest? How long will they depend on her to feed them? How will the chicks react toward their keepers when we come to service the aviary every day?

Amy Kuhar is a research associate at San Diego Zoo Global’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.