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bird conservation

1

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.

3

Mangrove Finch: Chick Transfers

Anita Carrion (Charles Darwin Foundation) and Paula Castaño (Island Conservation) load mangrove finches into transport crates for their voyage to Isla Isabela.

Anita Carrion (Charles Darwin Foundation) and Paula Castaño (Island Conservation) load mangrove finches into transport crates for their voyage to Isla Isabela.

Be sure to read the previous post, Mangrove Finches: Hand-rearing Chicks.

Nearly 40 days after the first mangrove finch eggs and chicks were harvested from their nests at Playa Tortuga Negra, it was time to send them home. Ever since they had arrived at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos as young chicks or embryos yet to hatch, we had spent all of our time hovering over them and attending to their every need with one goal in mind: to send healthy mangrove finches back to Isabela Island for release. It was an exciting and hectic time as we prepared to transfer the oldest chicks while the younger chicks were still being fed every hour!

Pre-release aviaries had been constructed in the mangrove at Playa Tortuga Negra by local builders and awaited the arrival of the seven oldest chicks that would make up the first release cohort. After the remaining eight were grown and feeding themselves, they would join the first cohort in the aviaries.

Members of the first cohort were fitted with a unique combination of color bands on their right leg for identification from a distance as well as a silver, numbered band on their left leg. A drop of blood was drawn from under the wing of each bird (just like pricking a finger) for DNA sexing. Transport crates were inspected by the Galápagos Biosecurity Agency to ensure that quarantine conditions would be maintained during the chicks’ transfer. The gear the field team would take with them was sprayed with insecticide and put into quarantine before it was allowed to leave for Isabela.

Mangrove finches relax in their transport crates aboard the Galápagos National Park boat "Guadalupe River."

Mangrove finches relax in their transport crates aboard the Galápagos National Park boat “Guadalupe River.”

The evening of our departure, we transferred the chicks from their fledging cages to mosquito-proof travel crates that we then covered with black sheets. Keeping the birds in the dark while traveling helps keep them calm as it simulates nighttime, when they are typically inactive. A small crowd of staff members from the research station and their children gathered outside of the lab to catch a glimpse of the chicks as we carried them to the truck that would take us to the dock. This group had supported us throughout the project, but due to the quarantine conditions in the lab, this was their only opportunity to see the chicks. The public turnout for the chick transfer was a touching reminder of the support we had received from so many to make the project a success. We loaded the chicks in their crates into a truck for the short ride from the lab to the dock where we took a small boat, or panga, to the Galápagos National Park boat Guadalupe River. The finches got their own bunk on the boat, and we were underway for Isabela.

We sailed overnight and awoke in the morning in the shadow of Volcan Darwin off the west coast of Isabela. After a rushed breakfast, we loaded the finches back into the panga and headed for the beach. The mangrove forest here is protected by a wide, black sand beach, but the porous lava bedrock lets the forest flood at high tide. Navigating the thick tangle of roots and branches is downright treacherous when the forest is flooded, so we were fortunate to land at low tide when the walk from the beach to the pre-release aviaries was relatively easy.

A wild mangrove finch visits the chicks in the pre-release aviary in the mangrove forest at Playa Tortuga Negra, Isla Isabela.

A wild mangrove finch visits the chicks in the pre-release aviary in the mangrove forest at Playa Tortuga Negra, Isla Isabela.

The first step toward getting the chicks used to their new surroundings was transferring them from their travel boxes into fledging cages identical to those they had lived in at the lab. These cages were hung inside one of the three large aviary chambers and allowed the chicks to have a look at their new home while still keeping them confined to a smaller space in case the novelty was too scary or overwhelming. They settled in quickly, and we spent the afternoon watching them while finishing up the fine details of the aviaries and filling in gaps.

Both of the local snake species had been spotted at the aviary site, and we hadn’t gone to all of the work raising these finches for them to be snake food! Rather than snakes, though, the chicks attracted the attention of two wild mangrove finches that came down to the aviary to check out the new arrivals! The wild visitors were the cherry on top of an exciting day that had gone almost precisely as planned. We bid the babies goodnight and went to set up our camp. I was only going to be at the field site for about a week, but the rest of the team would be there for two months, and there was a lot of food, water, and gear to be hauled and organized.

Chick #1 forages in the pre-release aviary on Isla Isabela.

Chick #1 forages in the pre-release aviary on Isla Isabela.

The next morning we let the chicks out of the fledging cages to explore the full aviary. We had furnished their new home with rotten logs, strips of bark, and trays of leaf litter—all places that they would find food in the mangrove forest after their release. They set about busily exploring these new things. It was entertaining for the field crew to watch them interact and learn to navigate in the larger space and to see their foraging instincts kick in.

The next several days were mostly spent observing the chicks in the aviary, finishing the aviaries in preparation for the arrival of the second cohort of chicks, and watching wild mangrove finches at their nests. We even managed to trap and band one of the wild finches that kept coming around the aviaries to check out the chicks! The days were hot, and one afternoon as I was having a combination bath/swim in the ocean, a Park boat showed up out of the blue with instructions to take me to a cruise ship that would take me back to Puerto Ayora. I had to bid goodbye to the field crew, pack up my gear, and go with them right away because the ship was already underway, and we would have to catch it sailing down the coast of Isabela. It was an abrupt ending to a really special part of my Galápagos experience. I got to bring the first of our hand-raised mangrove finches back to their home forest and spend a week camping on a beautiful, remote beach flanked by volcanoes and surrounded by the spectacular wildlife of the Galápagos.

The first release cohort of hand-reared mangrove finch chicks gather together in the pre-release aviary.

The first release cohort of hand-reared mangrove finch chicks gather together in the pre-release aviary.

I arrived back in Puerto Ayora the following morning and was immediately back in preparation mode. It was nearly time for the second cohort of chicks to be transferred to the release site. We went through the entire process once more, and a week later, Michelle Smith with the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program and Anita Carrion of the Charles Darwin Foundation sailed for Playa Tortuga Negra with the second cohort of chicks.

With all of the chicks grown and moved back to Isabela, there was nothing left for me to do but clean and pack up the lab and wait to hear from the field team. I could do that from San Diego, so I headed home, excited by what we’d accomplished but still nervous about how the chicks would fare after their release.

Beau Parks is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Mangrove Finch Eggs Hatch: A World First!

4

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,

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.

1

A Dusty Day Off

Lauren is ready to plant mamane saplings.

Lauren is ready to plant mamane saplings.

My day off began before the sun had even given thought to rising. I suppose this is more normal to me, a young ornithologist, than to most others. I packed my bag, laced up my boots, and slipped out the door just as the first streaks of light graced the horizon; this day was to be dedicated to planting native trees on the high slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea.

Historically, the yellow-flowered mamane tree used to be so abundant that an aerial view of Mauna Kea looked like a big yellow lei encircling the highest elevation of the peak. Unfortunately, this habitat has degraded to sparse grasslands in recent years. Mamane seeds are extremely toxic to most animals if ingested. Ironically enough, the seeds make up most of the critically endangered palila’s natural diet. Yellow headed and charismatic with a finch-like bill, the palila is one of the honeycreepers involved in the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center’s captive-breeding program. I have the privilege of seeing and working with these birds every day, and it was an honor to physically make a difference in the restoration of their natural habitat. In 2002, the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project began the task of reestablishing the mamane forests that once dominated the arid terrain of the mountainside, starting with the west and north slopes.

This particular morning, I met with the rest of the volunteers and headed up to the north slope site, Ka’ohe Restoration Area. The outreach coordinator, Jackson Bauer, gave us a detailed history of the mountain and forests, showing us native plants as we hiked around the area. We searched for what seemed in vain for wild palila. Suddenly, I heard it: churr-eep! My heart beating madly in my chest, I raced down the hill and around a cluster of mature mamane just as Jackson spotted it hopping from branch to branch. It watched us warily as it inspected each dangling flower and seedpod within reach. I was beyond thrilled to see one of our birds thriving in the wild, and it further instilled a sense of responsibility as to why I was there that day.

A'ali'i (pictured) and mamane saplings are carefully planted on Mauna Kea's slope.

A’ali’i (pictured) and mamane saplings are carefully planted on Mauna Kea’s slope.

After everyone settled down, we got down to business with the planting. We unloaded the eight-month old mamane and a’ali’i saplings, dibbles, and watering backpacks from the trucks and carried them to the plot. After a quick planting lesson, the group split easily into groups with distinct roles and set to work. Saplings were laid out in rows, and everyone worked in a leapfrog-like assembly line to dig holes, nestle the plants in the ground, and water each one carefully and efficiently. This was especially important to give them the best start in life on their own without the luxuries they had in the nursery.

With such a large group, we finished planting what we had brought much quicker than I expected. I wiped the sweat off my dirty face and admired the healthy 550 trees we had just planted. With a little time, they will become the native forest that once covered these mountainsides. With a little hope, they will become a sanctuary for the palila and other native animals dependent on this unique ecosystem.

For more information on restoration efforts, visit: facebook.com/MKFRP

Lauren Marks is an intern at the San Diego Zoo’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii.

1

Perfect Parrotbill Puppets

Click on the link to watch this parrotbill hatch.

Click on the link in the first paragraph to watch this kiwikiu (parrotbill) hatch.

The Maui Bird Conservation Center is pleased to announce the hatch of our second kiwikiu (Maui parrotbill) chick of the breeding season. The chick hatched on April 11 at 11 a.m., and I was lucky enough to see the chick hatching and took this short video clip: Kiwikiu (parrotbill) hatching.mov

The kiwikiu is an endangered, endemic Hawaiian honeycreeper only found in a small range on the eastern slopes of the Haleakala volcano on Maui. This species has been notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, but the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program has been having more luck in producing chicks in the last few years (see Raising Maui Parrotbills).

A puppet "parent" feeds the new kiwikiu.

A puppet “parent” feeds the new kiwikiu.

The kiwikiu is a very intelligent species, and we take many steps to keep the birds from imprinting onto humans. We use a hand puppet during feeds as soon as the young chick’s eyes start to open, and this year we thought it was time we “upgraded” our hand puppet.

At the Maui Bird Conservation Center’s Open House last November, I met a lovely local lady, Alyson Danford, who obviously has a real passion for the native wildlife of Hawaii. Alyson grew up on the Big Island of Hawaii but has now lived on Maui for more than 28 years. Alyson created a beautiful quilt of the kiwikiu among the native Acacia koa tree, and she donated this wonderful gift to our program during the open house. I immediately thought of Alyson about making the new hand puppet and contacted her about the project.

Alsyon stands in front of a quilt she made, inspired by the alala's hoped-for return to the wild.

Alyson stands in front of a quilt she made, inspired by the alala’s hoped-for return to the wild.

Alyson was very excited to help us even though she had never made anything like that before, and after a visit to our facility, she came up with two new hand puppets for our program! It was perfect timing when Alyson had the new puppets ready for our newly hatched chick.

We are extremely grateful to Alyson for donating her time and creativity to help us toward our mission of protecting the native birds of Hawaii. Alyson, Mahalo nui loa. Me ka aloha pumehana.

Amy Kilshaw is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Nene Come Home.

4

Nene Come Home

The wild nene family strolls the grounds of the MBCC.

The wild nene family strolls the grounds of the MBCC.

Over the last 17 years, 442 nene (Hawaiian goose) have been released throughout the Hawaiian Islands through the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Our nene breeding program played a vital part in the conservation success for a species whose population was down to only 40 birds in the 1940s. With current wild population estimates around at 2,500 birds split between the islands of Kauai, Molokai, Maui, and Hawaii, the breeding program was halted in 2011.

For me, the only downside of this success is no longer raising the gorgeous nene goslings, which were a highlight of working at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC). So it was a great delight when a pair of familiar nene came back to establish a nest site this January on our facility’s grounds. The male and female hatched here in 2004 and 2005 respectively and were both released into the wild here on Maui.

One can only imagine where and when this couple “fell in love,” but this is not their first nesting attempt at MBCC. The pair attempted a nest last year and laid two eggs, but one egg disappeared, and the pair abandoned the nest after the second egg was mysteriously moved quite a distance away. This season, the pair chose a more protected location and laid three eggs in a nest surrounded by the calls of the `alala and kiwikiu (Maui parrotbill). After 30 long days of anticipation, the pair successfully hatched out three perfect goslings!

For the next six days, the pair did a wonderful job keeping the goslings safe and warm, and we enjoyed being hissed away by the protective parents. But, hoping to minimize habituation to humans, we asked personnel from the State of Hawaii to translocate the family to a safe haven in a pre-release pen at the Piiholo Ranch where the goslings can grow, flourish, and eventually take flight over Maui.

We are thankful for the nene coming back to nest, and we hope to see them again next year!

Amy Kilshaw is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Full House at Maui Bird Conservation Center.

1

Full House at Maui Bird Conservation Center

Our educational displays were all updated for our Open House event.

Our educational displays were all updated for our Open House event.

The Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) hosted its Annual Open House Events in November. We house some of Hawaii’s most threatened bird species: the alala (Hawaiian crow), kiwikiu (Maui parrotbill), puaiohi (small Kauai thrush), and nene (Hawaiian goose). Our mission is to aid the recovery of Hawaiian ecosystems by preventing the extinction and promoting the recovery of Hawaii’s most threatened native birds.

As our focus is on breeding these critically endangered species, we give the birds as much privacy and seclusion as possible, and this, unfortunately, limits the amount of public outreach we can do. But once a year we get to open our doors and show Maui and its visitors a glimpse of these incredible birds and ways they can help in their conservation.

In preparation for the event, we worked very hard to update all our educational material with lots of new presentations and posters for visitors to enjoy. In addition to offering hour-long tours featuring the birds and our facility, we created a new interactive Keiki Room, with crafts and fun educational information geared toward children, and there was a silent auction with lots of fantastic items to bid on over the two days.

Robin mans the silent auction table at our Open House.

Robin mans the silent auction table at our Open House.

This year we had a record number of visitors, with almost 200 people coming through our doors! Robin Keith, senior research coordinator for San Diego Zoo Global’s Conservation Education Division, helped plan and implement this successful event with us. We advertised on a larger scale this year so we could reach more people across Maui, and the publicity proved so popular we had to add additional tours! We even had a visitor from Honolulu fly in for the day just for the event.

MBCC is one of two facilities operated by the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program, a field conservation program of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife. This year’s Open House was a great success, and we really enjoyed sharing the work we do with so many guests. We are already looking forward to opening our doors next year! We are especially grateful to all the supporters who donated items for our silent Auction.

Mahalo (thank you) to our Maui ohana (family)!

Amy Kilshaw is a research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Raising Maui Parrotbills.

10

Alala Egg That Changed the Future

An alala egg is candled to check on its fertility.

An alala egg is candled to check on its fertility.

It was a day in mid-May 1996, like any other at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii. But this would turn out to be a day to remember! Marla Kuhn opened the door to the staff meeting room, interrupting our usual Tuesday meeting. She was on the egg-and-chick shift and was not expected to attend the staff meeting, so her quiet entrance took everyone by surprise. All eyes turned to Marla, and the look on her face told me something was wrong. ”What died?” I whispered. She paused, looked at all of us one by one around the table, and spoke slowly, barely audible, perhaps out of fear that she could be wrong, “It’s fertile.”

She was speaking of the most recent wild egg collected from the last wild pair of Hawaiian crows, or álala, in existence. This would turn out to be the last egg ever laid by a wild álala, and it was fertile! We all sat silent. This was almost too much to hope for!

We knew this was a big deal, but it would take years before we recognized the true significance of this egg. This would be the egg that would change the future of the alala recovery effort. The egg hatched on June 9 of that year. It would be identified as Studbook #67 and named Oli, meaning “ritual chant” in the Hawaiian language. And although Oli would turn out to be a reluctant breeder, producing but six offspring over the years, his overall contribution to the gene pool has been monumental. Oli’s unique genes are now represented by no less than 47 of the 110 birds in the world population.

A fertile egg.

A fertile egg.

Thanks to the genetic vigor of the offspring from Oli’s genetic line, the program produced a record 19 chicks in 2011, a full 15 years after Oli hatched in 1996, and 15 chicks in 2012! We knew that last fertile egg was huge, but we never realized what a game changer it would be until these last few breeding seasons, where production has constantly and consistently improved. The ability to breed from unrelated stock coupled with the improvements and changes in the incubation, nutrition, and management of the flock has put the Alala Recovery Program on solid footing. We are now anticipating releasing alala in 2014, a full 20 years after we began our conservation program in 1993.

There is still much to be done: eliminate nonnative predators, invasive plant species, cattle, sheep, and pigs; dry up the wallows where mosquitoes thrive; and fence off the forests that will require recovery to support the expanding alala population. These are all great challenges, but motivated by our exceptional success in breeding the alala, the government agencies of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife are up to the task of habitat recovery and long-term management. This is truly a partnership for the next generation, because we are speaking in terms of many years, many generations both avian and human.

The forests of Hawaii have suffered many insults over the past 2,000 years, and it will not be easy to recover from the damage. But all agree that the alala is a key, perhaps THE key, to a healthy Hawaiian forest on every level: biological, ecological, and, most importantly, cultural. The alala is to Hawaii what the bald eagle is to the US as a nation. The alala has motivated Hawaii to begin the long path to habitat health, and we are most proud to be leaders in that effort.

Alan Lieberman is a research fellow at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

3

Working in the Dark Sheds Light on Bird Conservation

Mandi performs the delicate job of injecting an embryo.

The first time I sanded a hole in a chicken egg, peeled back the shell, and looked at the embryo, I was amazed. I could watch the blood being pumped in and out of the heart, and once I looked through the dissecting microscope, I was even able to see the individual red blood cells flowing through the vessels. Now, having worked in the Reproductive Physiology Division for a year opening numerous eggshells for injections, I still take a moment to look in wonder at this spectacle.

I work as a research associate studying avian reproduction. We are currently working on a model system to aid in preserving endangered birds by transferring gonadal stem cells (self-renewing cells that are located in the gonads and produce sperm or eggs) into chicken embryos. The cells that I inject, or transfer, are adult gonadal stem cells collected from male quails. I inject quail cells to develop the method, because it is easier to get quail testes than testes from exotic birds.

Let me give you a little background in the development of birds as it relates to our project. Their gonadal stem cells circulate throughout the bloodstream before they migrate to the gonad, where they mature and produce either sperm or eggs. Because we inject the adult male quail gonadal stem cells into early stage chicken embryos, they will also migrate to the gonadal ridge. When this rooster reaches maturity, he will produce both chicken sperm and quail sperm derived from the injected cells. The goal is to be able to use this technique to collect and inject gonadal stem cells from valuable exotic birds that have died of natural causes, so that even after death the sperm of that valuable bird can still be used for artificial insemination.

Let me take you through a typical day of embryo injections. The first thing that needs to be looked after are the needles. As you can imagine, the blood vessels of a chicken embryo three days after it is laid are very tiny. Our needles are smaller than a strand of hair at the sharpened tip. It takes a lot of time and patience to learn how to grind these glass capillary tubes (small, hollow glass tubes) into a fine, sharp point. The needles are mounted onto a micromanipulator apparatus that holds the needle steady during the injections. I load the needle with quail gonadal stem cells that are stained a fluorescent red so that we know which cells we injected and which are the chicken embryo’s own gonadal stem cells.

I sand a hole about the size of a quarter into the shell of a chicken embryo using your everyday belt sander. Gently, I peel off the shell to expose the embryo. Next, I very carefully inject the cells into one of the blood vessels while looking through the microscope. I seal the egg up using melted parafilm (a kind of scientist’s cling wrap) and a hot glue gun (minus the hot glue) and put the embryo back into the warm incubator.

Did I mention that with the exception of needle sharpening, all of this is done in the dark? The fluorescent-stained cells will lose their color if exposed to long periods of light. To keep this from happening, we use only one light directed away from where we are injecting, and the injected eggs are kept in a darkened incubator. At the end of our experiments, we identify the injected cells within the gonads of the chicken embryo by looking for red fluorescent cells using a microscope or a laser cell counter. This tells us whether the quail gonadal stem cells migrated to the gonads as predicted.

Our next step will be to use gonadal stem cells from exotic birds to assess whether they will migrate in the same way as the quail gonadal stem cells.

Mandi Roe is a research associate for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.