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Keauhou Bird Conservation Center

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.

6

Alala Chicks Fledge!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7

Alala Mom Shows How It’s Done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1

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.

1

A Dusty Day Off

Lauren is ready to plant mamane saplings.

Lauren is ready to plant mamane saplings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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.

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.

6

Fire Threatens Keauhou Bird Conservation Center

Smoke from the fire can been seen from the KBCC.

I was walking onto my lanai (porch) after work on November 2 at 3:15 p.m., when I received a call from Lisa and Amy, two staff members at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) in Hawaii. Lisa told me a National Park ranger was reporting a fire on the Keauhou Ranch near where KBCC is located. As I turned around, I saw a large black cloud rising into the air around the upper part of our 150-acre property. I called 911 as I rushed toward our upper alala (Hawaiian crow) aviaries to find that, thankfully, they were not the cause of the smoke.

The cloud was steadily growing in size, but because of the size of the property it was hard to determine the fire’s location. As I headed back toward the main office, a truck came up the road and a firefighter jumped out to confirm that none of the aviaries were burning. As we stood there, the roar of a helicopter interrupted our conversation as it flew over us. The firefighter left me with a phone number and the words “We’ll call you if you need to leave.” With that statement in my mind, I began calling the staff and interns back in to work. It was after the end of a long working day for most of the team, and a day off for others, but within 30 minutes, 9 of us were back at the facility, ready to go.

A hack box attached to an alala aviary allows staff to catch and hold the birds.

KBCC has 17 alala aviary buildings scattered around the grounds, as well as two barns for forest birds and the main brooder/office building, together holding more than 110 birds. Following our emergency protocol that lists birds in order of conservation importance, we began our evacuation preparation with the alala; this captive flock is priceless by virtue of the species being extinct in the wild. The alala aviaries are between 30 and 40 feet long, and inside each aviary there is a compartment called a hack box, which allows us to catch and hold the birds in a smaller space, if needed. The hack boxes are usually used for vet exams, quarterly treatments, and introductions between birds. On this Friday afternoon with helicopters doing bucket drops, fire engine sirens wailing in the distance, and multiple people in the aviaries, the alala were understandably nervous.

We set about catching the birds and securing them in individual hack boxes so that they would be easy to place in their carrier boxes, ready for evacuation, if needed. As the staff reported over the radio as each bird was caught, I was receiving phone calls and e-mails of support from all over the island: Kamehameha Schools, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Hawaii Fire Department, staff in San Diego and at our sister facility, the Maui Bird Conservation Center, and even a contact from the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery team, all checking in on us.

Fortunately, the alala and other KBCC residents did not need to be evacuated.

At 6:21 p.m., I received a call from the Hawaii Fire Department letting me know that the spots closest to our facility were fully contained and we were out of danger. The fire was still burning on the ranch, and they would be closely monitoring it throughout the night. As the sun set, the staff gathered at the main building for a quick de-brief and a big sigh of relief. The birds were checked on one last time and kept in the hack boxes overnight just in case the fire continued. Reports are that the fire came within 400 yards of our property line! Three days later, fire trucks were still on the ranch watching for hot spots.

When living on an island, there are numerous natural disasters that we have to be prepared for. Everything from fires to hurricanes, with the added “bonus” of volcanic eruptions, is taken into consideration when we work on evacuation plans. Thankfully, no one was injured, and we did not need to move the birds. This fire allowed us to use this experience as a real-time “drill” to put our evacuation protocols into action so that we continue to be prepared for the future.

Rosanna Leighton is a research coordinator at San Diego Zoo Global’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.