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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.