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nene

2

Hawaiian Birds: Pallets of Pellets

Palila specialize in eating the seedpods and flowers of the mamane shrub.

Special birds have special tastes… or more appropriately, they have special nutritional requirements.

Operating managed-care bird propagation centers in the relatively remote location of the Hawaiian Islands comes with its own set of challenges; one of the major challenges is providing our birds with the specialist diets they require to keep them healthy and productive. With the exception of the nene, all the focal species of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program can be described as “softbills,” a loose, general term to describe birds that consume fruit, animal protein, and nectar, or somewhere within that spectrum. For instance, in the wild, `alala are recorded as consuming a wide variety of native fruits, invertebrates and their larvae, as well as the eggs and nestlings of other birds. As another example, Maui parrotbills primarily consume invertebrates and their larvae, as well as nectar and fruits.

A delivery of Kaytee pellets is unloaded.

While it may not be possible to replicate wild diets exactly, we aim to provide a representation of the wild diet that offers the same balanced nutritional composition, and this is where it becomes challenging. Catering to insectivorous tastes, we import mealworms and crickets from a company in Oahu, as well as laboriously culture waxmoth larvae in-house. These insects are particularly important for providing animal protein to stimulate breeding, build up a bird’s resources for egg-laying, and to fuel the growth of chicks. For `alala, we import mice (adult mice, “fuzzies,” and “pinkies”) from the mainland, which come shipped overnight on dry ice in insulated boxes. For the palila, which specialize in eating the seedpods and flowers of the mamane shrub, this means frequent treks up into the sub-alpine zone on the slopes of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea to harvest the crucial food source.

A food pan prepared for 'alala.

`Alala are generalists, using that famous corvid intelligence to opportunistically forage for a wide variety of food types. One of the most effective ways to offer a generalist softbill a healthy diet in managed care is to provide softbill pellets as a significant proportion of their diet. These softbill pellets are an all-in-one meal with a balance of carbohydrates, fats, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. This is where we are very fortunate to have the wonderful support of Michelle Goodman and the Kaytee Learning Center, the educational wing of the Kaytee animal nutrition company. For several years, Kaytee has generously donated its Exact Mynah/Toucan pellets to support our `alala program, as well as covering shipping costs from Wisconsin to Hawaii. This is no mean feat—with now over 90 `alala in the flock, that is a lot of beaks to feed, and the most recent shipment weighed half a ton!

Richard Switzer is the conservation program manager of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read his previous post, ‘Alala Season Begins with a Flurry.

5

Nene Propagation: End of an Era

Nene pair Red Rocket and Nu enjoy retirement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

Nene Visitors

Wild nene perch on the roof of the main building at MBCC, checking out the residents.

Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) staff member Michelle Smith snapped this photo on February 13, 2011, when she spotted two wild nene perched on the rooftop of the main facility building. Wild nene visiting MBCC is not an unusual event, although this prominent lookout is a novel location.

Many combinations of wild nene stop by MBCC, including small groups, breeding pairs, and lone individuals. We can’t be sure what attracts them—it could be the lush, green facility grass, the contented contact-calls of resident breeding pairs, or the super-luxurious nene accommodations (see post Nene: Movin’ On Up). In the past, lone wild males have shown up, and they hang around for several days, courting un-paired captive females. However, these bachelors eventually leave when they realize the relationship will be strictly platonic, due to the impediment of the pens’ fences and mesh roof. Over at Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Big Island, the pens lack a mesh roof, so the wild visitors are free to come and go, and consequently the daily interactions can resemble a soap opera.

This wild male nene is out of luck in his attempts to court a resident female.

During breeding season our resident adult nene become extremely protective of their goslings, and the presence of wild nene can become very aggravating for parents that are restricted by the constraints of their pen from chasing off territorial infringers. If we observe behaviors indicative of stress in our captive flock, steps are taken to gently encourage the wild nene to another area of the facility grounds. The recent visitors photographed by Michelle did not appear to disturb the captive flock, so they were left to perch in peace and stayed in place for most of the afternoon.

Our spirits are uplifted when we hear the calls of wild nene as they fly overhead. Frequently we observe released nene, which have been hatched and raised at MBCC, returning to the facility grounds. The released nene are recognizable by their identification leg bands. Both the sight of nene on the wing and an occasional visit represent confirmation that our efforts are benefiting island conservation.

Josh Kramer is a senior research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, part of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read his previous post, 200 Puaiohi Released!

3

New Year of Nene Goslings

Nene goslings

The San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) is excited to ring in the New Year with the hatching of the first nene goslings of the season. The state bird of Hawaii is still captive bred at the HEBCP’s Maui Bird Conservation Center in the attempt to raise the wild population to a more self-sustainable number through the propagation and release of goslings.

The beginning of winter signals the start of nene breeding season. We monitor to determine when the females start sitting on a nest and when they begin laying eggs, because the period for incubation is approximately 30 days. Nene are typically the only birds that we encourage to parent-rear their young, as opposed to artificial incubation and hand-rearing by the staff. Therefore, the majority of our duty during the incubation period is observation.

Nene eggs are pulled for candling. Click on images to view in larger format.

The one exception is when the eggs are candled around day 18 of incubation to assess fertility. If an egg is fertile, it is returned to the nest of the sitting female; however, if an egg is not fertile, it is removed from the nest to prevent contamination of the remaining eggs. Although interns like myself are unable to handle the eggs, it does provide valuable opportunities to learn from the actions of the knowledgeable staff.

On day 28 of incubation, we listen for any sound of goslings that may have hatched. The nene goslings tend to roost underneath the female for approximately two to three days after hatch before their parents take them around the enclosure. There are some changes made to promote the survivability of the goslings, which include shallow water pools and adjustments in diet. Each modification is tailored to the age of the goslings, so as the goslings mature they transition to the diet and husbandry of an adult nene.

Each bird in the HEBCP flock has a unique identification band. Every week or so, the leg bands of the nene goslings are changed, because the youngsters are growing at such a great rate, and we want to avoid any injury that would be sustained if a band were to be too loose or too tight. During this procedure, the staff is able to perform physicals to monitor the goslings’ health and to keep an eye on their body weight and development.

At the Maui Bird Conservation Center, we are ecstatic to announce the successful hatching of seven nene goslings! The three new pairs of parents are taking wonderful care of them. The goslings are eating well, gaining weight, and exploring among the long grass of their enclosures.

There are currently an estimated 1,800 nene in the wild. However, with the exception of the population on the island of Kauai, nene numbers are not sustainable due to ongoing threats facing the wild birds, such as predation by introduced mammals and habitat degradation. In an attempt to keep the wild population buoyant, the HEBCP has released 429 nene since 1996. The current plan is to produce 75 goslings over the next five years, which will be released at Haleakala Ranch on Maui. This is a part of the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife’s commitment to the safe harbor agreement with these private landowners (see post Nene: Movin’ On Up). The safe harbor agreement with Haleakala Ranch will provide a well-maintained and safe habitat for the nene youngsters to be released into.

Sierra Browning is an intern at the San Diego Zoo’s Maui Bird Conservation Center.

3

Nene: Movin’ On Up

MBCC staff release nene into their new home.

Red Rocket (#14) and NU (#30), our two oldest nene (or Hawaiian geese), have been around long enough to see plenty of changes. Both birds were hatched in the wild and came to live at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) in 1987 and 1992 respectively. They were moved in 1996 from mosquito-proof buildings with concrete floors to outdoor pens with grass. Now they have brand-spanking-new pens, luxury suites of the nene world! Not only were the old pens past their use-by date, but they will soon be demolished to make space for new ‘alala (or Hawaiian crow) aviaries that will be constructed this fall (see Corvid Cupid).

An aerial view shows the new pens for nene.

Aaron’s Construction recently finished building four sturdy new pens to house our nene. Each pen comes furnished with a tented mesh “roof,” so adults and their goslings can remain fully flighted and ready for release. They have also been constructed of strong wire mesh walls to keep rats and mongoose at bay, and, of course, each pen comes equipped with shelter, hoses for easy cleaning, food stations, and pools for bathing and keeping cool in the summertime. We will keep a total of four pairs of nene, with our sights set on a goal of producing at least 75 birds over the next five years; all will be released at Haleakala Ranch as part of the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife’s commitment to this safe harbor agreement.

Roy Newton offers a traditional Hawaiian blessing for the nene.

Following local cultural practice, and to prepare our nene for what we hope will be a fruitful life, required the help of a Hawaiian minister. On June 3, Roy Newton visited MBCC to deliver a Hawaiian/English blessing over the new pens and anointed each with a mixture of water and Hawaiian salt so that any animal entering them will be protected. NU and Rocket moved into their new home directly after the blessing, along with the rest of the nene flock at MBCC.

We hope NU and Rocket will be around to see many more happy changes. In the meantime, they are ready to offer a warm welcome and plenty of aloha spirit to MBCC visitors during Nene Awareness Day (mark your calendars for September 26)! Read about last year’s Nene Awareness Day.

Sharon Belcher is a senior research associate for the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read her previous post, ‘Alala Takes Extraordinary Flight.

0

Nene Awareness Day

nene_flappingFor the third consecutive year, the staff and interns at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC), a captive propagation facility of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program, found themselves floating among a sea of excited school children and curious visitors. On September 26, we opened our doors to the public to celebrate Nene Awareness Day, a day recognized by Hawaii to honor its state bird, the nene.

The nene, or Hawaiian goose, has come to symbolize one of the natural wonders of the Hawaiian Islands. But like many of Hawaii’s native flora and fauna, human activities and introduced animals reduced the nene population to as few as 30 birds in the wild and 13 birds in captivity. Recognizing that the species was endangered, conservation biologists in the late 1940s undertook a captive breeding program to assist in population recovery.

A display includes a nene nest tub with sample eggs.

A display includes a nene nest tub with sample eggs.

MBCC plays a significant role in recovering the species. Since the inception of the conservation center, more than 400 captive-hatched nene have been released by the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife. Through a combination of conservation efforts and breeding programs, the nene population is increasing, and the total number is estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000, with each of the island populations being supplemented by captive-reared birds. Despite the reintroduction success of the nene to the islands, the species remains vulnerable, and it is important that residents of Hawaii understand the challenges facing nene recovery so that we can all assist in the effort.

Amy talks about nene with young visitors.

Amy talks about nene with young visitors.

Nene Awareness Day gives us an opportunity to showcase our conservation work through educational and entertaining displays, demonstrations, and activities. Approximately 100 visitors were treated to an opening talk, a brief facility tour, and diverse exhibits designed by staff and interns. The aim of our exhibits was to connect visitors to the science of wildlife conservation through hands-on participation. For example, guests candled real eggs while we explained embryology concepts used to determine the age and health of the embryo. Visitors examined our incubators and hatchers and they practiced chick feeding using “parent bird” puppets. Our veterinary clinic exhibit showcased our medical equipment and allowed guests to examine actual X rays. Another display highlighted the various types of nest boxes used during the breeding season.

We also displayed the field equipment we use to transport birds to our release sites. In the “Keiki Zone”, children made enrichment items for the birds, practiced their bird-watching skills, and identified real feathers, eggs, and nests. Guests, children and adults alike, enjoyed posing in our giant nene cutout. The crowning activity, of course, was viewing two of our charismatic nene, Little Mickey and Red Rocket.

Through this open house, MBCC biologists hope the local community will join us in our conservation goals and aid in the stewardship of natural resources. Together we can keep the endangered nene from going extinct.

Amy Poopatanapong is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo’s Maui Bird Conservation Center.

16

Hawaii Bird Program: Open House

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Staff member Blake Jones shares why Hawaii birds are facing extinction.

The Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) welcomed visitors on December 6, 2008, to its annual open house. Over 80 people came to see some of the most endangered birds in the world and learn about our role in their recovery efforts.

The visitors learned from the staff about the main problems that are affecting the wild populations of endemic Hawaiian birds. These are introduced predators (mongoose, rats), introduced diseases (pox, malaria), and habitat degradation/loss (much from feral sheep, goats, and pigs).

There were thought to have been 140 species of birds in Hawaii when Europeans first arrived on the islands. Today, one-half of those are extinct. Of the remaining, about one-half are critically endangered, and many of them are presumed extinct.

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Staff member Kara Kneubuhler introduced a tour group to three rare ‘alala in the education aviary.

During the open house, our guests were given the opportunity to see Hawaiian crows (‘alala), Maui parrotbills, palila, puaiohi, Hawaiian ‘akepa, and elepaio. Even a pair of wild nene made an appearance.

Few people get a chance to see these birds. The ‘alala are extinct in the wild and there are currently 60 at the KBCC and our sister facility, the Maui Bird Conservation Center. The other species at the KBCC are critically endangered and live in hard-to-reach habitats. For example, Maui parrotbills are found in the remote high-elevation rain forests of Maui, and currently less than 500 remain. Puaiohi live in the Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve of Kauai and prefer habitat with steep ravines. The wild population may be as low as 200 individuals.

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The hand-rearing lab window prepared for viewing.

The visitors were given a look at our kitchen to see what ‘alala, palila, and puaiohi at the KBCC eat. The kitchen contains many foods you might find in your own kitchen, such as apples, melons, and frozen vegetables, and many others you wouldn’t want to find there, like frozen mice, mealworms, and dried fly pupae!

A video allowed the visitors to see some of our field activities including collecting eggs from wild nests and releasing hand-reared birds as well as parts of the incubation and hand-rearing process that very few get to witness. Everyone learned about the tremendous effort put into each egg and chick and got a peek into a hand-rearing lab through a viewing window.

The grand finale of the tour was the ‘Alala Education Aviary, which is home to three ‘alala (Lilinoe, Lokahi, and Kekoa). Many were surprised at how big the birds are; they are larger than many of the crows found on the mainland. Visitors were also even more surprised to find out that such a large animal only weighs about one pound.

We also had the pleasure of hosting four artists from the Big Island. Jack Jeffery, Emily Herb, Elizabeth Miller, and Margaret Barnaby displayed and sold their bird-inspired artwork as the open house guests snacked on refreshments and had the opportunity to ask questions and talk to the staff.

The open house not only gave the public a chance to learn about our facility, but it also gave our staff a chance to share our excitement and passion for conservation of the rare and wonderful birds we work with daily.

Sara Bebus is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.

Visit the Hawaii Endangered Bird Program blog section

4

Preserving Hawaiian Bird Cell Lines

Palila cells

Palila cells

There is another side to the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program that happens at the San Diego Zoo’s Beckman Center for Conservation Research. Our Genetics Division has preserved the genetic material of many Hawaiian birds in the Frozen Zoo®, a large collection of frozen samples, including thousands of cell lines. Most of the cell lines in the Frozen Zoo are grown using a piece of skin tissue from a small biopsy, which can be taken during an animal’s regular veterinary exam.
This is not as feasible for birds due to their fragile skin and small size, so our chance to obtain tissue from Hawaiian birds comes after they have died. Usually we receive an eyeball or a section of trachea. Then that piece of tissue is diced up into tiny pieces and put into an enzyme that digests the connective tissue, freeing up the individual cells.

Andrea places prepared flasks in an incubator.

Andrea places prepared flasks in an incubator.

Once the diced tissue has been “digested” by the enzyme for a few hours, we put the remaining material in a tissue culture flask with the appropriate cell culture medium, which is a liquid containing the nutrients cells need to survive, and place them in a heated incubator. We will “feed” the cells every few days by emptying the flask and putting new medium in. If all goes as planned, the cells will attach to the bottom of the flask and will proceed to divide until they take up all the space. When there are enough cells, we will apply another enzyme, called trypsin, that breaks up the bonds holding the cells to the flask so they float freely, allowing us to move the cells into new, larger flasks for continued growth. Eventually the population of cells has doubled several times. It typically takes around a month for this to happen; tissue from younger animals tends to grow more rapidly than from aged animals.

Preserved cells in the Frozen Zoo

Preserved cells in the Frozen Zoo

Then it’s time to put them in the Frozen Zoo. Ordinarily, cells die when frozen because the water they contain forms sharp ice crystals, tearing the fragile cell membranes apart. To inhibit crystal formation, we add a chemical called a cryoprotectant (in this case, dimethyl sulfoxide) to the cells. The cells are then placed into several tiny one-milliliter vials and put in a computerized cryogenic freezer that lowers the temperature at a carefully controlled rate. A little over an hour later the cells have reached 80 degrees below zero, and they’re ready to be put into boxes for storage in the Frozen Zoo, where liquid nitrogen keeps them frozen at an even colder temperature: 196 degrees below zero. At any time, they can be pulled out of the liquid nitrogen, thawed, and put back into cell culture medium and they will continue growing! Cells can be kept frozen for many years in this suspended but living state; nobody knows exactly how long because the technology has only been around for a few decades. The Frozen Zoo thus provides a self-renewing source of DNA for researchers studying the genetic makeup of particular species.

Currently there are cell lines from over 45 Hawaiian birds in the Frozen Zoo, including nene, ‘alala, Maui parrotbill, puaiohi, palila, and Hawaii creeper. Sadly, in 2005 the po’ouli became the first extinct species represented in the Frozen Zoo. It will doubtless not be the last, but thanks to all the people working hard on this project, there is reason to hope that no more Hawaiian birds will end up on that tragic list.

Andrea Johnson is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo.