Uncategorized

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.

3

Have Bird, Will Travel!

Alala chicks settle in at the KBCC.

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

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

Natalie carefully holds her precious cargo at the airport.

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

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

A palila chick gets weighed at KBCC.

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

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

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

3

Aloha, Green Mama

Green Mama, one month before her passing.

It was a wet day. With an average annual rainfall surpassing 300 inches (762 centimeters), almost every day in Kauai’s Alaka`i Swamp is wet. That 26th day in April 1996, 4 tiny puaiohi eggs were collected from wild nests. In total, there were seven puaiohi (or small Kauai thrush) eggs collected that year, all a cream color with a thousand tiny, brown spots speckling the fat end, and only five were fertile.

In 1996, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (at that time operated by The Peregrine Fund) was spearheading efforts to recover Hawaii’s native birds. By that time, the wild population of the puaiohi was at a crossroads. It was thought to be extinct in 1950. Habitat loss, rats, cats, and disease carried by introduced mosquitoes were the biggest enemies to puaiohi survival and continue to haunt all wild forest birds in Hawaii. Luckily, this enigmatic little bird was rediscovered by Frank Richardson and John Bowles in 1960. When it was officially listed as endangered in 1967, the puaiohi was given a second chance at life; but with 177 total sightings between 1968 and 1973 and only 13 in 1983, it was in dire need of assistance.

Joop Kuhn harvests precious puaiohi eggs from the wild in 1996.

Little was known about these birds, as they had never been bred or kept in captivity. With so few individuals left, each incoming puaiohi egg was a precious gem whose population couldn’t afford mistakes. In preparation, `ōma`o, the only Hawaiian thrush not endangered (or extinct) at the time, were used as a “model” species to develop incubation and captive-rearing techniques and release methods. Wild eggs artificially incubated and hatched were considered the best option, because wild adult birds might not adapt to captive life as well as birds raised in managed care. The strategy proved successful, and 25 `ōma`o were hatched and eventually released. With the triumph of the surrogate program, the proverbial “stage” was set and ready for puaiohi.

Fluctuating cabin pressure made transporting eggs inter-island risky. Instead, the eggs were brought to local biologist Jim Denny’s “egg house” to complete their incubation and were monitored with great anticipation. The first to hatch was named Ikaika, meaning “strength” in Hawaiian. (It was an oddly fitting name, considering its inspiration came off the back of the softball shirt Jim Denny wore as he hiked through the Alaka`i!) The last egg collected hatched on April 27, and the chick, given the studbook number 5, was transported to the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Big Island three days later. She grew up and laid her own eggs the following year, but none of the original eggs collected in 1996 produced males, so #5’s first eggs were infertile. Twelve more eggs were collected from the Alaka`i in 1997, and by 1998, the first fertile puaiohi eggs were laid in captivity. The following year, the first 14 birds we raised were released into the Alaka`i.

Cyndi Kuehler and Tom Snetsinger candle a puaiohi egg in 1996.

Remaining with us, #5 hatched and successfully reared seven chicks, including babies she fostered in addition to her own brood; she even fostered palila eggs! Because of this, puaiohi #5 ultimately earned the name Green Mama in part due to the tiny green band on her left leg. She was retired from the breeding program in 2002 to give her body a break but continued in her determination to benefit the species by building nests and teaching an army of staff and interns the ways of her kind.

The morning of April 25, 2012, two days short of her 16th birthday, Green Mama died. In the days leading up to her death, she showed no signs of ill health and was happy to chase after every insect tossed her way. Like most birds, she was never one to complain, but at almost 16, Green Mama was actually very old. She was the record holder for longest-lived captive puaiohi and was also the last surviving founding member of the first 15 eggs hatched during the program’s inception. Quite simply, her time had finally come.

While we mourn Green Mama’s passing, we also celebrate a great victory for the puaiohi, the only Kaua`i forest bird species that has not declined over the last decade. Recent surveys show that the wild population has increased to 500 to 800 birds and is now relatively stable. A more accurate estimate is difficult to obtain due to the difficult nature of the terrain in the Alaka`i. But at this point, our captive breeding and release program can be halted while field crews monitor the wild population to see if it can thrive on its own over longer periods of time (see post Puaiohi: Released and Breeding). Green Mama would be proud!

In the islands, aloha is an expression of the joy in one’s soul and refers to the genuine feeling of love, friendship, and compassion that is readily given to all. We use it as a greeting when giving our aloha to those we meet and to wish someone well when they take their leave. In this manner, perhaps it is best to wish Green Mama aloha as she continues her journey so we never have to say goodbye.

Sharon Belcher is a senior research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Nene: Movin’ On Up.

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.

10

‘Alala: A Magic Moment

We have an amazing video for you to watch!

As mentioned in the previous blog, Corvid Cupid (part 2), we spend innumerable hours each breeding season monitoring and analyzing the breeding behavior of the `alala flock as part of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.

An `alala female normally gives signals that she is laying an egg, but we usually have to wait for her to leave the nest before we know for sure. Not this time. This is `alala studbook #149, named Po Noe, laying an egg in the nest. As a rare treat, Po Noe stood up a little while laying the third egg of her second clutch. You can actually see the egg being laid.

Click here to watch Po Noe lay her eggs.

(Note: This video only seems to open on Macs, not PCs. We apologize!)

Jennifer Holler is a seasonal research associate/student intern at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii, part of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.

0

Hawaii: Native Birds and Plants

Ohelo fruit is a native Hawaiian cranberry, favored by many frugivorous birds.

What is the connection between plants and birds? Plants can provide birds with shelter, nesting material and nest sites; food in the form of nectar, fruits and seeds, leaves. They can even harbor invertebrates. Birds, in return, protect plants from those invertebrates, assist in pollination, and disperse seeds. Sometimes, bird and plant species evolve “together” to the mutual benefit of both species, exemplified in Hawaii by the hoawa Pittosporum glabrum and its large seeds that lie within a tough outer shell. The `alala is the only known existing, native species that can deal with this robust fruit.

Susan Culliney, a masters student in collaboration with Colorado State University, has been studying `alala at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) to investigate their ecological relationships with a variety of native Hawaiian fruits, including hoawa. The study has focused on the `alala’s role in seed dispersal and germination, a role currently unfilled due to the `alala being extinct in the wild.

The MBCC greenhouse is bursting at the seams.

For many years now, the East Maui Irrigation Company has provided the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) staff with access to protected forest, where we carefully select small branches of ohia Metrosideros polymorpha and koa Acacia koa for perching. We collect native berries for dietary enrichment, giving potential release birds the opportunity to develop a “search image” for native fruits that will benefit them when they are released.

Recently, we have also begun to look for ways to develop our own native plant resources. The MBCC already sustains a few native plants from which we have gathered seeds. We have also been fortunate enough to obtain seeds from other sources, including the KBCC. We are delighted to have the assistance and advice of Anna Palomino, a local nursery owner who recently developed a native plant nursery within walking distance of the MBCC. Anna is propagating some of the more difficult native plants and has generously offered an “exchange” program: we bring her compromised plants, such as plants that have spent time in `alala aviaries, and we receive healthy ones to put into use around the facility. With this plant swap, we hope to provide a more consistent supply of healthy plants for aviaries while reducing our losses.

From these small seedlings, large koa trees will rapidly grow.

We have always made attempts at native plant propagation, with varying degrees of success; however, within the past year, our efforts really began to focus on designating a small amount of time every week on plant propagation, despite jam-packed days filled with bird husbandry, facility maintenance, and aviary upkeep. The facility greenhouse is now literally overflowing with native plant seedlings, to the point where we are hoping for a second greenhouse to house our propagation efforts!

Thanks to the green thumbs of Research Associate Michelle Smith, 10 species of native plants have sprouted, including pilo Coprosma spp., hoawa, and aalii Dodonaea viscose. Over 100 koa seedlings are 4 to 6 inches tall, and our most recent success is the germination of ohia seeds. Eventually, these plants will be valuable in multiple facets: we will distribute appropriate plants to our captive flock for enrichment and foraging.

Other plants will be planted on facility grounds; over the long-term, the plants will provide perching material and food for our captive birds and, we hope, create an oasis of native plant life that will entice wild native birds, such as `amakihi Hemignathus virens, to utilize facility grounds as habitat. Finally, seedlings may act as educational tools during tours, which visitors will be able to take home to promote the preservation of Hawaiian plants and habitats, helping to spread the kokua and aloha.

Joshua Kramer is a senior research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, managed by the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Nene Visitors.