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Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program

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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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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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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: Does Mother Know Best?

Here is alala Pomahina's nest and two eggs.

These are two of the three eggs PoMahina was incubating; photo taken during one of several brief nest checks

Spring is the time of year when most birds are busy building nests, laying eggs, and raising hungry chicks. For the alala (Hawaiian crow), it has been more than 20 years since any members of the species have successfully raised their own young. Since its inception, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program has focused on pulling eggs for artificial incubation and hand-raising chicks as a means of maximizing the reproductive success of the tiny alala population. However, this spring there is change and new hope in the air! We are happy, but cautious, to announce that we have a female alala showing promising indications of successfully rearing her chicks!

Pulling alala eggs from the parents’ nest and then placing the eggs in incubators enables us to closely monitor the conditions that would allow the best chances for the eggs to hatch. It also gives the female an opportunity to lay more eggs. Once the chicks hatch, they are hand-reared until they are old enough to feed themselves. These alala parent pairs have great genetic value because they only have a few or no offspring, meaning their genes are not well represented in our flock’s family tree.

Over the last 4 years we have raised 53 alala chicks, and at the start of the 2013 season, the population stood at 108 birds. Now that we have a solid footing in the recovery effort, we are focusing our effort on natural incubation and parent-rearing for a select few alala pairs. One of our more prolific females, PoMahina, comes from a well-represented genetic line and already has three surviving offspring in the flock. This gives us the rare luxury of being able to allow her the chance to parent-rear.

Not surprisingly there are many questions and concerns about whether alala will be able to take care of their own offspring. All 108 alala in existence have been hand-raised. It has been speculated that there could be learned behaviors and an alala “culture” that may have been handed down through the generations in the wild that has been lost. Two years ago, an alala egg was given to a female, shortly before hatch, for her to attempt to foster-parent rear the chick. The foster mother was seen on camera feeding and caring for the chick, but sadly, the chick died a few days later. Unfortunately, not much is known about how alala reproduced in the wild. It is crucial that we use opportunities like this to learn as much as we can about the monitoring and management of alala nests to give the species a greater chance of survival in the wild. With the first release of alala potentially planned for 2014, the timing could not be any better!

In early April, PoMahina laid three eggs, and after a brief nest check to the eggs, we confirmed that all three were fertile. After approximately 23 days of incubation, three tiny chicks hatched on April 30, May 1, and May 2. Keep visiting the Hawaiian Birds blog for our updates on how the parent-rearing process is going!

Amy Kuhar is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii. Read her previous post, Pizza for the Birds.

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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.

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A Trip Down Memory Lane

Rebecca tells students about the work she does helping endangered Hawaiian birds.

Rebecca tells students about the work she does helping endangered Hawaiian birds.

While it has been a long time since I stepped into a classroom, the second I walked onto Pahala Elementary School’s campus a flood of memories of my own school days came rushing back. I remember coming into the first class of the day and still wanting time to chat with my friends. I remember the small tables and chairs that I know I used to fit into, though now it’s difficult to imagine. And while I remember the class bells ringing in school, yesterday I was very nearly shocked out of my skin when the bell signaled the start of class. I guess that’s the sort of thing you never notice as a kid.

That morning I had the pleasure of assisting Robin Keith, a member of the Conservation Education Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, in administering an essay contest to the sixth- and seventh-grade classes of Pahala Elementary and Ka‘u High School in Pahala, Hawaii. This essay contest was designed to discover a student’s own interpretation of, and experiences with, wildlife. The information will help guide our conservation education and outreach programs in support of our Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Some students struggled at the beginning, not really sure what to write about, but in the end they all submitted great stories. Two winners will be chosen at random, and that student will be taking his or her entire class on a field trip to the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii.

Students work on their wildlife conservation essays.

Students work on their wildlife conservation essays.

After the essay portion of the class, Robin spoke about current conservation issues facing Hawaii and about techniques used at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) for saving native Hawaiian birds. Then it was my turn to field any questions that the students had about KBCC. I have spent the past six years working with some of the most endangered and difficult-to-rear bird species in Hawaii, but when it came to commanding the attention of 12 and 13 year olds, I was a bit daunted. Usually, when I’m presenting information about my job, I’m in my workplace with every conceivable prop and medium available to showcase the native birds. Here, however, I was standing at the front of the classroom with nothing but my strong voice, great bird conservation information, a smile, and enthusiasm for my job! In the end, I hope the students walked away with a great writing exercise and some valuable information about Hawaiian bird conservation. I walked away from the campus hoping that I had planted at least one seed of love and respect for native Hawaiian wildlife.

I must send out a very big mahalo (thank you, in Hawaiian) to the teachers of Pahala Elementary and Ka‘u High School for allowing Robin and me to invade their classes and for their enthusiasm in teaching their students environmental education. Another very big mahalo to the wonderful students, who had excellent questions about the birds and embraced the essay-writing challenge. We look forward to future collaborations with students and teachers on the Big Island as we work to foster pride and support for conservation of Hawaii’s natural heritage.

Rebecca Espinoza is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.

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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.

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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.

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Have Bird, Will Travel!

Alala chicks settle in at the KBCC.

My time as an intern and seasonal research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) from 2006 to 2007 left quite the impression, so I jumped at the chance to return as a research associate in February 2012. It’s been a nonstop first six months as the newest staff member at MBCC, filled with trips to the Big Island, exciting experiences, and many hungry chick mouths to feed!

The Maui parrotbill breeding season was in full swing upon my arrival at MBCC, and the first chick I participated in raising for the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program was a tiny Maui parrotbill (kiwikiu). A month later, one of our kiwikiu breeding pairs produced another chick. The transfer of this kiwikiu chick to the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) on the Big Island presented the perfect opportunity for me to visit KBCC for the first time. Little did I know that I would be visiting the Big Island facility three times within my first five months!

Natalie carefully holds her precious cargo at the airport.

While I have relocated chicks before, this chick was my first transfer via airplane, and it came with its own unique challenges. Kiwikiu are altricial birds, which means that they are entirely reliant upon their parents for food, warmth, and protection when they hatch. Being a 13-day-old altricial bird weighing in at only 14 grams (0.49 ounces), the kiwikiu chick was unable to completely thermoregulate (maintain his own body temperature) by the day of his journey. A miniature heating pad inside his travel carrier provided him warmth throughout the trip. Constantly monitoring the bird’s well-being, making sure all the correct paperwork was present for security purposes, and the plane ride itself made the trip an exciting and nail-biting experience! All of the pieces fit together perfectly, and the short flight to the Big Island went smoothly.

The need to transfer an alala chick from MBCC at the end of June doubled as a chance to stay a bit longer at KBCC to assist staffers with their many alala chicks. Although the MBCC alala chick was a couple of days younger than the kiwikiu chick, she weighed nearly 10 times as much as the kiwikiu! The size of this not-so-little female helped her maintain body heat, and I actually focused on making sure she didn’t overheat during her travels. Frequently checking to make sure she wasn’t too hot resulted in drawing a fair bit of attention from the Hawaiian Airlines flight attendants and fellow passengers. All of this curiosity made an excellent opportunity for educating the public and sharing about the plight of the alala! This second visit to KBCC was filled with great experiences, from the chance to educate the public about the alala to the opportunities to learn about hand-rearing of various ages of chicks and managing the many alala breeding pairs.

A palila chick gets weighed at KBCC.

Less than two weeks later, staff members at KBCC had their hands full of hungry (and LOUD—ear protection required!) alala chicks and needed an extra pair of hands… another chance for me to visit the Big Island and get more experience! By this point, I had the chick routine down and jumped right in to help out. In addition to the large number of alala chicks, KBCC had successfully hatched a palila chick. When the opportunity arose to take a break from feeding the “mob” of alala chicks, I assisted in hand-rearing the young palila. Working with the palila chick allowed me to gain invaluable hands-on experience with this intriguing species.

It’s been an amazing start to my position here at MBCC, and I’m looking forward to many more years working with and learning about these remarkable and unique species!

Natalie Staples is a research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, operated by San Diego Zoo Global.