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Hawaiian crow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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.

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.

10

Training an Alala for an Important Job

'Alala Kinohi

Kinohi, a male ‘alala (Hawaiian crow), has finally found a place to call home-away-from-home here at the Wild Animal Park. After flying in from Hawaii in May (see previous post, ‘Alala Takes Extraordinary Flight), he spent his first 30 days in quarantine at the San Diego Zoo’s Harter Veterinary Medical Center (HVMC). He was then moved to the off-exhibit Bird Breeding Center at the Wild Animal Park, where we thought he would stay.

As crows are highly susceptible to West Nile virus, his enclosure had to be lined with fine-mesh mosquito netting. Unfortunately, the netting not only kept out the mosquitoes but also reduced airflow through the enclosure, and when summer turned up the heat, not even the water spraying down from the misters could keep his area cool. So, Kinohi was moved back to the HVMC. He now has a large room with a big skylight, two cardboard “nest” boxes, many perches, a bath, several toys, and, of course, air conditioning. His room has a camera, and the keepers can monitor his activity throughout the day. From what they can see, Kinohi likes this quiet and cool room; he appears calm and quite content.

And calm is much better for those of us working with him. Kinohi was sent here so that Dr. Barbara Durrant, director of Reproductive Physiology at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, and her staff could train him for semen collection. As one of only 60 ‘alala left in the world, Kinohi is very important to that population; unfortunately, he is behaviorally compromised and will not breed. His genes will be lost unless we intervene. Our goal is to collect semen to artificially inseminate a compatible female. We also hope to store some of the ‘alala’ semen in the Frozen Zoo. (See previous post, Freezing and Thawing: Not so Easy)

Working with Kinohi certainly is a challenge. Crows are very smart, and if we are not careful, he’ll end up training us instead of the other way around! Luckily, we have had the help of the keepers at both the HVMC and the Bird Breeding Center. They have shared their insights with us as well as making sure all of Kinohi’s needs are met, from food and water to appropriate perches and toys. Park animal trainer Kim Caldwell also gave us advice and taught us the proper way to reward Kinohi during training.

We’ve had to spend time getting to know Kinohi’s personality and gaining his trust. In the beginning, he would never sit still for long, and we felt successful if we had just one solid minute to pet him and left without any new bruises from his beak pounding on our ankles. But little by little we have seen Kinohi transform from an anxious bird, constantly hopping from perch to ground, to one who sits contentedly to get his head scratched. He now perches with his feathers so fluffed that he almost looks like a youngster, and he will even close his eyes while I rub his head feathers and Barbara pets his back and tail, abdomen and cloaca. (The cloaca is the opening through which birds secrete sperm as well as feces and urine.) Eventually he sidles away, hops over to his cardboard box, and fusses with the grasses inside, mumbling to himself. Then we try to lure him back. When he cooperates, he gets one of his favorite treats: a piece of mouse or a waxworm. When he refuses to come back, the session is over.

We feel positive about the progress we’ve made, but our time is running out. Last week, Kinohi started molting. When birds start expending energy to replace their feathers, it is a good indication that the breeding season is over and sperm production is ending. Thus, in our case, Kinohi’s molt tells us that we are not going to collect any sperm this year. Kinohi, however, will be spending the entire year here at the Wild Animal Park, and Barbara and I will be visiting him every day so that next year, when breeding season rolls around again, he should be ready to donate sperm samples to help save his species.

Dianne Van Dien is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read Dianne’s previous post, Frozen Zoo: One Step Forward.

0

‘Alala Takes Extraordinary Flight

Kinohi is gently stroked by keeper Karla Michelson to help prepare him for future handling.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009, was a pivotal day for the management of the ‘alala flock…and for the management of one particular bird: studbook #33, better known as Kinohi.

Early on Tuesday morning, staff at the Maui Bird Conservation Center packed up Kinohi into his specially modified bird carrier for the start of a momentous journey that would take him on a flight nearly 3,000 miles across the Pacific. The mission is an ambitious attempt to ensure that Kinohi’s valuable genes are passed on to future generations of ‘alala, hopefully helping to guarantee the survival of the species.

The ‘alala (or Hawaiian crow) is one of the most endangered species on the planet; its population is currently thought to be extinct in the wild. Only 60 birds remain, all maintained at the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program’s centers on Maui and at Keauhou (on the Big Island). With such a low population size, the gene pool is limited, and every bird’s genes are incredibly valuable. Because Kinohi is behaviorally compromised and does not recognize himself as an ‘alala, he has never shown any interest in breeding with females. Time is running out for Kinohi to pass on his genes – he was hatched in 1990 and is now entering the twilight of his years – and the only opportunities now lie in cutting-edge animal science.

Kinohi (and co-author Sharon) received VIP treatment as passengers on the flight from Maui to San Diego, thanks to the ongoing program support of Hawaiian Airlines. Belying his usual cantankerous demeanor, Kinohi was relatively mild-mannered en-route and seemed oblivious to the fuss, perhaps due to the sedatives that had been prescribed for the flight.

Upon arrival, Kinohi was installed in his aviary at the Wild Animal Park’s Harter Veterinary Medical Center. Lead Hospital Keeper Jeff Fuller was there to welcome Kinohi, presenting the opportunity to discuss Kinohi’s idiosyncrasies and finer points of husbandry. After 30 days of quarantine, Kinohi will be transferred to an off-exhibit aviary at the Wild Animal Park’s Bird Breeding Center. Crucially, soon after his arrival, Barbara Durrant of the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, Reproductive Physiology Division, will begin the intricate work of beginning to collect semen samples for storage in the Frozen Zoo. It is hoped that Kinohi’s sperm can eventually be used in the artificial insemination of female ‘alala once the techniques have been refined. See previous post, Massages for ‘Alala.

Although it is fully expected that Kinohi will live many more happy, productive years at the Bird Breeding Center, in the event of Kinohi’s death, staff at our Wildlife Diseases Laboratories are prepared to perform a rapid necropsy so that his tissues will be as fresh as possible for cultivation in the labs of the Genetics Division. It is hoped that the complex process of tissues culture will be successful and the Frozen Zoo will again be utilized to store the cells for posterity. Similarly, his gonad tissue will also be collected. See previous post, Preserving Hawaiian Bird Cell Lines.

In conclusion, the transfer of Kinohi to the Wild Animal Park and the subsequent effort to maximize his genetic potential represents an exciting collaboration between the Institute for Conservation Research, the Wild Animal Park’s Bird Department, the two vet departments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Hawaii Division of Forests and Wildlife. In due time we all hope to experience the sight of Kinohi’s genes, represented and embodied in future generations of ‘alala, flying over the canopy of Hawaii’s native forests.

Sharon Belcher is a research associate and Richard Switzer is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo‘s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.