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.


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.


200 Puaiohi Released!

A young puaiohi is released into the Alakai Wilderness Area.

The San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program achieved a monumental milestone on October 12 when we released 12 captive-bred puaiohi Myadestes palmeri, or Kauai thrush, into the Alakai Wilderness Area on the island of Kauai. This brings the total number of captive-bred puaiohi released to precisely 200. This was our 13th release in 12 years.

The puaiohi is found only on the Hawaiian island of Kauai and is now restricted to habitat within the Alakai Wilderness Area. Survey teams currently estimate the surviving population of wild puaiohi to be around 500 individuals, but accurate estimates are difficult due to rough terrain and the naturally secretive behavior of the species. Notably, this number is twice the population that was estimated in the late 1990s.

Following each captive-breeding season (see 1st Hatch of Hawaiian Bird Breeding Season), we decide which puaiohi to release and which to keep, based on genetics and demography of the captive population, with release candidates having the most represented genes in the captive population. After they are selected, each bird receives a physical examination and blood screening to ensure proper health and fitness for survival in the wild.

This year we decided on 12 juveniles for release; it is thought that younger birds are less likely to be chased off by resident adults (or each other), as their juvenile plumage displays them as non-threatening in established territories. Additionally, young birds have young minds, which are thought to be more flexible in adapting to their new habitat and wild food sources.

Early in the morning of October 5, we caught up the 12 release candidates and put them into their travel carriers. Departing from Kahului airport, Hawaiian Airlines treated the birds to near-celebrity status, not only by donating flights to Kauai, but also smoothing the processes of checking in, security screening, and boarding. Transferring birds between islands can be extremely stressful for both the birds and us, but Hawaiian Airlines personnel created a minimal-stress experience, for which we are tremendously grateful (the birds as well!).

Upon arrival on Kauai, the puaiohi were transported to the release site, where they settled into their acclimatization aviaries. Over the next week the birds experienced the new sights and sounds of the surrounding Kauai forest, sampled some of the local food provided daily by our fieldworkers (native berries such as lapalapa and pilo), and grew accustomed to the Alakai weather.

A released puaiohi surveys its new home.

Then, on October 12, after 7 days of becoming habituated to the Alakai, the 12 eager puaiohi emerged from their pre-release aviaries. They excitedly “attacked” the surrounding plant and invertebrate populations, foraging on juicy berries and scavenging through tree bark and moss clumps for tasty insects. Most of the birds left the area to explore other parts of the Alakai, although two birds remained faithful to the area around the release aviaries, benefiting from the supplemental food we provided. Of the two birds who stuck around, one stayed for 7 days post-release, while the other continued to frequent the release area when our field team exited the Alakai, 14 days after the aviaries had been opened for the release.

Normally, we would have a better idea of survival for the complete group of birds, but this year radio-transmitters were not put on the birds. Transmitters offer the opportunity to track the reclusive birds throughout the Alakai Wilderness Area, providing survival and dispersal information to monitoring teams. But data taken over the past 11 years indicates the success of releases: of the released birds whose status is known at the end of the 28-day post-release monitoring period, 66 percent are confirmed to be alive. Additionally, birds released in the past have been observed successfully breeding and adding to the wild population. So even though we don’t know for sure the fates of our youngsters released in October, we have high hopes they will settle in the Alakai, helping to create and maintain the future wild population of puaiohi.

A big mahalo for the help and support provided by Hawaiian Airlines, the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Program, and the Koke’e Resource Conservation Program, without whom the releases this year would not have been possible.

Joshua Kramer is a research associate with the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read his previous post, Nene Goslings Released on Maui.


‘Akepa: End of an Era (But What a Life!)

June 29, 2009, was a sad day for the staff of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program: the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) experienced the death of the last remaining Hawaii ‘akepa Loxops coccineus in our care. (There are still ‘akepa in the wild.)

Although this marks the end of an era, it gave the program staff a chance to reflect on the remarkable life of this wonderful little bird. Affectionately known as “Studbook #3,” he hatched in May 1999 from an egg collected from the wild—one of the first potential founders of the captive ‘akepa flock. This means that he was just over 10 years old at the time of his death. Not bad for a little guy typically weighing in at 10.2 grams or 0.36 ounces. (When you weigh only 10 grams, those extra 0.2 grams count for a lot!) But this is relatively heavy compared to an ‘akepa chick, which weighs less than 1 gram (0.03 ounces) at hatch—one of the smallest passerine species to have been raised artificially from the egg, and quite a challenge for our team of hand-rearers (see post, A Small but Mighty Akepa).

Although Hawaii ‘akepa are not one of Hawaii’s most critically endangered bird species, having the ‘akepa flock in managed care has enabled us to develop and refine techniques that we hope to use in the recovery of their more endangered relatives within the subfamily of Hawaiian honeycreepers. The remainder of the managed-care ‘akepa flock were eventually released in 2007, in an initial attempt to reestablish a wild population in a restored patch of forest on the Big Island known as Kipuka 21 (see post, Kipuka 21: A New Home for Our Creeper and ‘Akepa). However, due to an accident in his aviary as a fledgling, which resulted in a major part of one of his legs being amputated, #3 was considered not fully equipped to lead a healthy life in the wild. Instead, he was destined for our education aviary.

It was amazing to see how he thrived in the captive environment on only one leg. “Thrived” is perhaps an understatement, because he was well known to crowds of school children visiting KBCC for his dazzling acrobatics, whether he was hanging upside-down from the roof of his aviary, or a flash of orange feathers hot on the pursuit of fruit flies and moths, only to elegantly alight on a perch with perfect balance on his one good leg (scoring 10 points from the Russian judge).

But ‘Akepa #3 is not the only bird that we believe has set a managed care longevity record for its species. Puaiohi #5, better known as Green Mama, is still going strong at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) despite veterinary issues, having hatched in 1996. Puaiohi #9 is only a year behind her and is still siring offspring this season at the age of 12. Not to be outdone, Palila #11 has been laying fertile eggs at the grand old age of 13, while 12-year-old Maui Parrotbill #1 continues to chase females less than half his age.

It is not unusual for tropical bird species to lead long lives, since they do not experience the extreme challenges that the seasons bring for birds in temperate climes. Very often their annual reproductive rate is low, too—the antithesis of “Live fast, die young.” Furthermore, with a consistent, healthy food supply and veterinary care, birds in managed care frequently have the ability to outlive their wild counterparts. Of course, these smaller passerines cannot compete with the larger species, such as corvids, which are renowned for their longevity. Consequently, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program honors undoubtedly goes to Kalani, ‘alala studbook #27. At the ripe old age of 28, Kalani is the old man of the program. Although time has certainly mellowed him, he is reputed to be a grumpy old man, at that.

Richard Switzer is the Conservation Program Manager for the Institute for Conservation Research’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.

Read Richard’s previous post, Naming ‘Alala Chicks.


Puaiohi: 300th Chick

On Tuesday, May 26, 2009, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program reached a new landmark in its species recovery program for the puaiohi Myadestes palmeri: this fluffy-downed chick (pictured) represents the 300th chick to hatch since managed-care propagation efforts began in 1996.

The puaiohi is one of the four target passerine (perching birds) species for our program’s bird breeding activities. In fact, the puaiohi is undoubtedly our most productive species; it was only April 2006 that marked the hatching of the 200th chick (see post, The 200th Puaiohi).

Even more crucially, the puaiohi is the subject of an ongoing release effort in its last stronghold, the Alakai Swamp, a wet upland plateau on the island of Kauai. Working with our partners, the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, we have released 176 puaiohi since 1998 (see post, Spreading the Puaiohi across the Alakai).

So far, chick #300 is growing rapidly and developing well, fueled by its diet of bee larvae, papaya, scrambled egg, cricket, and mealworm guts. Initially, hand-rearing feeds are painstakingly provided on the hour, 15 times per day; the frequency is reduced as the chick grows and becomes more robust. We hope this youngster will continue to make good progress and will either be retained in the breeding program at the Maui and Keauhou Bird Conservation Centers or will be released to boost the critically endangered population in the wild.

Richard Switzer is the conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.


Hawaii Bird Program: Open House


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.


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.


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


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.