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Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program

4

`Alala Population Soars Past 100

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

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

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

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

Helping an 'alala chick hatch takes steady hands!

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

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

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

4

She Came, She Stayed, She Was Released

The `akiapola`au adjusts to her temporary home.

In early February 2012, our partners at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Biological Research Division called the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii to ask for our involvement in the recovery of an `akiapola`au Hemignathus munroi, which had been caught in a mist net at Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge on the Big Island. The `akiapola`au is a woodpecker-like member of the endemic Hawaiian honeycreeper family. This striking little creature has an unforgettable bill. It uses the broad and stocky lower mandible to hammer away at tree trunks and branches to excavate insects’ burrows or expose sap; it then uses its long and slender, curved upper mandible to probe the holes and extract the insects. `Akiapola`au are currently listed as endangered, due to threats of deforestation, habitat fragmentation, predation by introduced mammals, and avian disease.

Ornithologists often use mist nets to catch wild birds, attach leg bands, and gather important data about them such as their lifespan, migratory patterns, and biometric measurements. In this way, we add to our ever-growing knowledge of how well bird populations are fairing. However, immediately after release from the hand, this female `akiapola`au was observed flying poorly and was unable to sustain long flight or gain lift. Occasionally, when birds are caught and handled, they may suffer muscle strains, just as humans do. As you can imagine, birds have a hard time flying with strained wing or breast muscles, which in turn can affect their subsequent survival in the wild.

‘Akiapola’au habitat at Hakalau National Refuge on the Big Island

The field biologists immediately recaptured the `akiapola`au to assess her condition and judged that the bird was unfit for release. We happily provided a holding cage and waxworms for the short-term care of the bird. After a few days, it became apparent that the `akiapola`au would require long-term care to recuperate from her injuries. She arrived at our facility on February 13 and was treated like royalty; she was given a quiet environment, with limited human contact to make her as comfortable as possible. To limit the potential exposure of disease to the birds in our care, she was kept under quarantine conditions while we ran clinical tests to screen for disease.

Our feathered friend voraciously indulged herself on her favorite insects and also adjusted slowly to the selection of other items we offered. Curiously enough, we found her to be an aficionado of green peas (yes, the ones you find in the grocery store freezer section) and cantaloupe! Who would have guessed?

After about three weeks in our care, the `akiapola`au’s condition and behavior prompted us to transfer her from her recuperation cage into a small aviary as a means of assessing her flight ability. If we had any doubts about her abilities, she soon corrected them, as she showed us that not only was she back to her old self, but that she needed a bigger aviary, too! We quickly graduated her to a full-sized aviary, and she soon took full advantage with perfect flight capabilities and exhibiting natural foraging behaviors. I’m sure her neighbors—a puaiohi, palila, and Maui parrotbill—wondered about this new kid on the block who seemed to be making an awful lot of noise by pounding on all the wood in her aviary, looking for bugs.

The door is opened on Aki #1′s overnight howdy cage.

By the start of April, it became clear that the “`aki” was fit for release. On April 9, the bird was transferred back to the Hakalau refuge, stopping in at the East Hawaii Veterinary Center for a final physical exam and the “green light” for release. At Hakalau, we installed her in a “howdy cage” overnight, enabling her to settle after her long journey and acclimate herself to her surroundings. The following morning, the `akiapola`au was released into her home range, very close to the site where she had originally been mist netted. Although the field crew from the USGS had spread out, encircling the release site just in case there was problem, the `akiapola`au delighted us all by flying straight up to the canopy and appeared to adjust very well to her old wild environment.

What’s particularly special about this event? To our knowledge, it has been at least 20 years since an `akiapola`au has been kept in captivity and almost certainly the first time an `akiapola`au has been rehabilitated back to the wild. The successful rehabilitation of the `aki is a shining of example of how cooperation, husbandry expertise, and knowledge of Hawaii’s birds can lead to a very happy ending. But the conservation action for this one `akiapola`au represents just one very small piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Conservation efforts, such as reforestation, minimizing habitat fragmentation, exotic predator and feral ungulate eradication, as well as an improved understanding of the species in the wild, will be essential to ensure the `akiapola`au population has a secure future.

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

2

Puaiohi: Released and Breeding

A released puaiohi

Winter in Hawaii is usually thought of as a “snowbirds” paradise; people flock to the islands to get away from the nasty storms associated with mainland winters. This year, here on the islands, we got to experience our own sort of winter storm. Throughout the months of February and March we were pelted with winds and rain, leaving everyone quite soggy and begging for sun. With some of the rainiest months in recent history came some new inhabitants for the island of Kauai. The crews at the Keauhou and Maui Bird Conservation Centers transferred 22 puaiohi Myadestes palmeri to the Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve for release, with special thanks to Hawaiian Airlines for giving the endangered birds their VIP seats on the plane.

This year marked the 14th release of puaiohi to the Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve. On February 13, the first 12 birds made their journey from the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Big Island to Kauai and were released one week later. We apply a “soft release” principle, where the birds are housed in a hack tower for one week to get accustomed to their surroundings before having to fend for themselves; after release, we offer them supplemental food near the release site. Before these birds are released, we fit them with a small radio transmitter, attached by means of a backpack. Using radio telemetry, we can track the individuals and find out how they are doing. Our partner, the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, does most of these tracking efforts, helping us evaluate the movements and survival of the release birds.

This wild bird is paired with one of the HEBCP's released birds, making their nest at an artificial nest site, evidence of successful conservation measures in action. Photo credit: Mitch Walters

The first group was lucky to have nice weather for the first few days after release, enabling the birds to explore their new home in suitable weather. This being said, quite a few dispersed farther than anticipated. The second group of 10 birds traveled from the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) on February 28, delayed by a day due to storms. From then on, this group struggled just to stay dry. The puaiohi were released on March 8, again a few days late, but seemed to do quite well, considering the unusual weather. Several of them were spotted feeding at the supplemental feeding stations, which was a relief to the crews.

Since this year spring’s release, one particular female has been of interest: puaiohi #345, a young bird who hatched at the MBCC in 2011. In the past month, this particular female has been observed paired with a wild male and, crucially, incubating eggs in a nest of her own; further proof that our released puaiohi adjust to life in the wild and are contributing to the survival of the wild population. We are hoping that this nest produces chicks and helps to ensure the population keeps growing.

Over the last 13 years, 222 puaiohi that were hatched and raised through the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program have been released back to the wild. Over the same time frame, the wild puaiohi population is estimated to have doubled to more than 500 birds; it is thought that numbers are currently remaining stable. While we love to report success stories such as this, our conservation partnership has decided to temporarily halt our puaiohi release effort. This partnership is now moving on to the next phase of species recovery, re-focusing efforts from captive propagation to protecting the species in its natural setting. This includes predator control, providing artificial nest boxes that are predator proof, and habitat restoration.

With efforts to protect the wild nests and habitat of puaiohi, as well as other critically endangered species on the island of Kauai, we hope to see many more nests in the future, just like that of #345’s.

Rachel Kingsley is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii.

2

Raising Maui Parrotbills

A newly hatched Maui parrotbill

The Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program is pleased to announce our current success in raising the critically endangered Maui parrotbill (Hawaiian name: kiwikiu). This year, two chicks have hatched at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC), and one chick hatched at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) on the Big Island. Our previous chick was raised in 2009, so adding three birds to the managed-care population over the course of one month is fantastic!

A newly hatched Maui parrotbill weighs only 1.5 grams (about the weight of a large paperclip!) and needs to be fed every hour between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. for the first 13 days, with additional midnight feeds for the first 3 nights, which keep us very busy. Being intelligent and slow to become independent, Maui parrotbill chicks are susceptible to imprinting, so when their eyes begin to open, chicks are fed with a sock puppet created to look like the adult bird. When MBCC’s two chicks were old enough, we transferred them to KBCC so that they could all be together, helping them to develop the correct species identity.

A Maui parrotbill youngster

In the wild, Maui parrotbills form monogamous pairs that produce a clutch comprising a single egg. If raised successfully, the fledgling can remain with its parents for up to 17 months, so the species naturally has a low reproductive output. Here, we increase egg production by removing eggs from parental nests for artificial incubation, which can trigger the females to lay more eggs.

The Maui parrotbill is a member of the unique Hawaiian honeycreeper family. Currently, the Maui parrotbill’s range is extremely restricted to high elevation ohi`alehua forests on the eastern slopes of the Haleakala volcano on Maui. The wild population is estimated to be only around 500 birds. Although the population is currently considered to be stable, its distribution is limited primarily to one location, making it susceptible to extinction.

Growing chicks with a puppet "parent" watching over them

The Maui parrotbill is an insectivore that uses its strong, parrot-like beak to remove insect larvae from tree bark and fruit. Providing them with an extensive range of insects for their diet is a challenge, which we try to overcome by providing alternative nutritious foods and plenty of native branches for them to forage. In the last few weeks, we have started experimentally adding silkworms to the flock’s diet. We are hoping the bright yellow pigments contained in the green leaves eaten by the silkworms will ultimately be deposited in the birds’ plumage and enhance the yellow color of the males, making them more attractive to the females. With continuing effort and good fortune, we hope for another successful breeding season next year.

Amy Kilshaw is a research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, part of the San Diego Zoo Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read her previous post, Nene Propagation: End of an Era.

7

‘Alala: Weighing In

`Alala Hekili shows his peers how weighing is done.

Keeping a close eye on the health of the birds is very important to us here at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. One valuable way we determine the health and body condition of a bird is through obtaining regular weights. (See also Zoo Hospital: What Do You Weigh?) Traditionally, we would weigh birds by catching them in a net, then transferring them to a box or a bag that could then be placed on a scale. This method required the time of multiple husbandry staff at once and subjected the birds to a certain amount of stress. Stress in birds can be dangerous, and we obviously like to keep our birds as stress-free as possible. Our solution was to convince our `alala to offer us their weight by landing on a freestanding platform that had been placed on a scale. This is called a “remote weight.”

2011 `alala chicks are already at ease with the process.

By using positive reinforcement, the birds of our `alala flock have been conditioned to perch on a freestanding platform that holds their food pans. When individuals are fed on these platforms consistently, it adds little to no stress to move that platform onto a scale to obtain a weight. With this procedure, one staff member can obtain the weights of many birds in one day, with the birds typically unaware of what is taking place!

Laha finds a loophole in the weigh-in process when he uses a stick and some gymnastics to retrieve some apple from the far side of the freestanding food platform.

The younger `alala from 2010 and 2011 have become experts at retrieving rewards from the platforms and have served as good examples for other birds to watch the process. Not everyone is easily convinced, however, and some of our `alala have proven a challenge. It seems as though some of our smarter adults are also rather stubborn, and the conditioning process has developed their crafty side! One of our mature males, Laha, seems determined to prevent us from weighing him and goes to great lengths in order to obtain treats while breaking the rules.

Michelle Smith is a research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, part of San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read her previous post, New Homes for the Growing Flock.

1

Maui Bird Conservation Center: Open House

Get this cool logo on a T-shirt!

Although we occasionally host VIP tours at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC)—usually school students or other special interest groups—it is not often that we get the opportunity to open our doors. Being a non-public facility that focuses on captive breeding and reintroduction programs, we simply do not have the logistical capabilities to welcome visitors to MBCC throughout the year. However, our team is always delighted to introduce guests to our resident birds, as well as share stories and the successes of the San Diego Zoo Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Consequently, we are excited to announce two important dates coming up.

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

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

We look forward to meeting you at MBCC!

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

5

Nene Propagation: End of an Era

Nene pair Red Rocket and Nu enjoy retirement.

On June 24, 2011, we handed over four nene (Hawaiian geese) to Haleakala National Park staff, who took them away for release in the crater of the dormant volcano on Maui, Hawaii. These birds had received the routine physical examination before their release and had been micro-chipped and banded for identification in the wild. Nothing unusual there: the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program has released 442 nene (pronounced nay nay) since 1996, helping to augment wild populations on the Hawaiian islands of Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island, as well as establishing an entirely new population on Molokai. But importantly, these birds represented the last two breeding pairs from the nene captive propagation flock at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC).

Robert Taylor, intern, and Sharon Belcher, senior research associate, get the nene ready for release.

In April this year, we had received the news from our partners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife, that it was time to end the captive propagation-and-release program for nene. The nene population throughout Hawaii has risen to nearly 2,000 birds, having been at a low point of only 40 birds in the 1950s, representing a very significant conservation success story. With the population now at this level, captive propagation is no longer considered the most efficient tool for further recovery of the nene. But management of the wild population by our field partners will continue to play a vital role.

So having hatched 395 goslings, we are coming to terms with the fact that we will no longer have gray fuzz-balls as the focus of our attentions over the winter months. Crucially, however, our spirits are lifted by the knowledge that captive propagation and release have been instrumental tools in bringing back the nene from the brink of extinction. It is time for us to say “job well done.”

One pair of nene, known to the staff as Red Rocket and Nu (pictured at top), will remain at the MBCC facility. Red Rocket (a female) was wild hatched in December 1987, though in her 24 years she has never laid a single egg! She happily spends her time with the male, Nu, who was hatched at MBCC in June 1992 from a wild egg. We are very glad to still have these two retirees to keep us company.

Amy Kilshaw is a research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Honk if You like Nene.

2

A Growing ‘Alala Flock

An 'alala checks out her new neighbors.

Construction of the new `alala aviaries at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) was completed early this spring, thanks to the great work of our friends at Zoe Builders. (See post, New Homes for the Growing Flock).  In order to house the growing `alala flock, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) staff members are in the process of transferring juvenile and non-breeding `alala from our sister facility, the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) on the Big Island, over to MBCC.

Prior to installing the birds into their new aviaries, we have been busy making the aviaries into suitable homes for the new residents. This has entailed mounting perches, ropes, and browse tubes, and hanging large swinging perches from the ceilings. The aviary has natural earth floors, to which we are steadily adding grass, logs, koa trees, and other native plants to simulate natural elements of their wild environment.

The four new `alala aviary buildings at MBCC.

One of the advantages of the new aviaries’ design is that they are much more efficient for daily maintenance and cleaning; this reduces the amount of time we are inside the aviaries, so the birds spend less time interacting with us and more time interacting with each other. But we are able to make close observations of the birds through windows. Catch-up cages, known as “hack-boxes,” are a new feature for MBCC aviaries, having proven a valuable component of KBCC’s aviaries. We are in the process of conditioning the `alala to feel comfortable coming into the hack-boxes by placing their daily food pans inside, but eventually we hope to be able to train the birds to enter the hack-boxes in return for a reward.

KBCC Research Associate Rachel Kingsley arrives at Kahului airport, transporting an `alala to its new home in Maui.

Transferring a large number of `alala from the Big Island to Maui is a gradual process, because the birds are such a special consignment. Hawaiian Airlines very kindly allows the birds to travel in the cabin—perhaps the only birds in the world with airline corporate membership?! We are careful to ensure that the birds’ carrier boxes are protected with mosquito netting, which eliminates the ever-present risk of avian malaria. The flight is short, but the birds occasionally vocalize during the flight, which leads to some head-turns from fellow passengers—fortunately not enough shrieking to make ourselves unpopular…yet! We are always eager to explain what precious cargo they are carrying as well give a mini-history of the HEBCP and its goals with the endangered `alala.

Once the `alala arrive at the Kahului airport on Maui, they make the 30-minute drive up the slopes of Haleakala to the MBCC facility. The selection of which birds to place next door to specific neighbors is dependent on several factors including personality, age, sex, and behavioral history toward other birds. Upon arrival in their aviary, the carrier box is positioned so that the bird has a full view of its new home, and it is then released. After it has found a favored perch on which to settle, we observe the bird to ensure that it is still healthy after the journey. The new residents are checked frequently to ensure that they are adjusting well in their new abode.

After successfully relocating five `alala to MBCC this spring, we plan to transfer more juvenile and non-breeding `alala from KBCC over the next few months. Crucially, with this year’s breeding season underway, we have hopes to fill these aviaries with another productive year of youngsters.

Sierra Browning is an intern at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Interns Birding at 10,000 Feet.

0

Interns Birding at 10,000 feet

An iiwi feeds on the blossoms of a mamane tree at Hosmer Grove.

As interns at the San Diego Zoo’s Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC), we have a unique opportunity to work with and preserve endangered Hawaiian avifauna. We come from various backgrounds to learn from the knowledgeable staff about husbandry care, breeding, and incubation of the birds that are a part of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP). (See post, Interns Help Endangered Birds.)

Our days typically include the observation of breeding behaviors, diet preparation, cleaning and maintenance of aviaries, and monitoring the health of the birds. Every few weeks the interns are presented with a lecture pertaining to conservation projects both in Hawaii and around the world. We learn about various bird species and the global issues that play a role in their survival.

Two of the major threats impacting endemic Hawaiian birds are the destruction of native forests and avian malaria spread by nonnative mosquitoes. MBCC is located in an area where there is very little native forest and within the zone where avian malaria is prevalent, so there are very few native birds around; there are plenty of introduced mynahs, cardinals, and house finches, though. Consequently, to find the majority of native forest birds in Maui, it is necessary to visit protected areas above the altitudinal limit of the mosquito line.

Interns Sierra and Cody consult bird guides to identify birds along the trail.

After spending several months getting to know the birds in managed care at MBCC, we were given the opportunity to observe the native birds that reside on the slopes of Haleakala volcano. Our journey began in the Haleakala National Park with a small hike through Hosmer Grove, which is a trail nestled just inside the entrance of the park. Looking through our binoculars, we were able to identify the various species that flew from tree to tree. Among the mix of introduced and Hawaiian trees, we were able to observe several native forest birds, including the spectacular `i`iwi, `apapane, `amakihi, and the endemic Maui creeper. We noted the varying flight patterns and calls of the birds that were visible and attempted to seek out the ones that were not. We consulted our Hawaiian bird guide books throughout our adventure to confirm our observations.

Drive carefully!

We then started our trek up to the 10,000-foot summit of Haleakala, which is a popular tourist attraction on the island of Maui for its breathtaking views and rare wildlife. As we made our ascent up the mountain, we caught a glimpse of several chukar partridges running along the side of the road up to the summit. The chukar is one of the many nonnative species to have been introduced to the Hawaiian Islands; in the case of the chukar, it was introduced as a game bird. We also kept an eye out for the nene that reside around the crater, including a large number released over the years from MBCC, but we were not fortunate enough to catch sight of any in the mist.

For the past five months we have spent the majority of our time at the MBCC facility caring for the birds, but being able to witness forest birds in their natural environment gives us hope and renewed appreciation for the HEBCP propagation mission. We enjoyed our brief field trip up to the Haleakala summit and Hosmer Grove, and we hope that future interns continue to have as much fun (but slightly less altitude sickness) as we did.

Sierra Browning and Lisa Farr are interns at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read Sierra’s previous post, New Year of Nene Goslings.

1

Endangered, Elusive Palila

A palila perches on a mamane tree at the KBCC.

Over the course of three weeks in January and February 2011, staff members from the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program trekked up to Pu`u Mali, on the northern slopes of Mauna Kea (the tallest mountain on the Big Island of Hawaii). Our objective was to carry out some preliminary research on the small population of wild and released palila that reside at this location.

The palila Loxioides bailleui is one of the endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper species propagated at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC). The palila uses its strong, finch-like bill for opening mamane Sophora chrysophylla pods to obtain the immature seeds (its primary food source), and the species shares a close ecological relationship with the plant. The introduction of invasive ungulates such as goats, sheep, and cows ultimately led to the vast destruction of mamane forests, which in turn was responsible for decimating the palila population and reducing its range. Currently, the majority of the population is located on the south-western slope of Mauna Kea, but it is declining rapidly. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the palila population has dropped from about 4,400 in 2003 to as low as 1,200 birds in 2010. Efforts to expand the palila population back to its historic range at Pu`u Mali have included experimental releases of captive-bred birds from KBCC, as well translocation of wild birds by the USGS.

A release aviary in the heart of palila habitat.

During our fieldwork, we had three goals:
1) To provide supplemental food at the former release site and then record data on the frequency of supplemental food consumption by both captive-released and wild palila. Since food abundance is a limiting factor in the palila distribution and population, we hoped that our previous release birds and even wild birds might return for supplemental food.
2) To conduct surveys of the Pu`u Mali area, in an attempt to get a population estimate of palila currently inhabiting the area, both captive-released and wild.
3) To conduct behavioral observations of wild palila with regard to habitat use, in the hope that this may provide additional, valuable information for application in captive management.

Research staff look for wild palila.

We spent a total of four hours each day observing the feeding stations and another four hours hiking around Pu`u Mali in search of both wild and release birds. Unfortunately, no palila were sighted at the feeding stations, and none of the supplemental food appeared to have been eaten. Luckily, there was a seasonal abundance of mamane pods, so perhaps the palila will be more eager to come in for supplemental food at other times of year, during mamane shortages. More discouraging was the result that scarcely any palila were even sighted at Pu`u Mali, with a maximum of four birds recorded by our team. Worst of all, we documented numerous signs of feral cats (another major threat to the palila) as well as signs of pigs, goats, and sheep.

The results from our field expedition seem to shed a grim light on the current status of the palila population at Pu`u Mali. Although the outcome was not what we would have wished, it did confirm that drastic conservation efforts are still needed to help save this unique bird species. Consequently, we feel even more motivated to continue our own palila recovery activities.

Kyle Parsons is a research associate at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.