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Nine rare alala chicks hatched at Keauhou Bird Conservation Center

Updated: 
August 14, 2014 - 7:50am

Using puppets and wearing cloaks, animal care staff at the San Diego Zoo Global’s Keauhou Bird Center have spent the past several weeks as the faux mother to rare alala, or Hawaiian crow, chicks.

These special conditions begin from the moment the hatchlings open their eyes at the Volcano center.

“Alala are very intelligent birds and are susceptible to imprinting,” said Bryce Masuda, San Diego Zoo Global program manager. “We use puppets to hand-rear and feed the birds when they are young to keep them from imprinting onto us, so they will behave naturally as adults.”

Nine chicks hatched this breeding season, which began in April and concluded this month, Masuda said.

The center’s nine-member staff is literally lending a hand in trying to save these chicks and the endangered species from sliding to extinction. Alala are extinct in the wild, and the last were recorded in 2002 in their forest natural habitat, where they were threatened by habitat destruction, introduced predators and avian disease.

The entire remaining population is managed in captivity through a collaborative effort by the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Since the program began, its focus has been on pulling eggs for artificial incubation and hand-raising chicks as a means of maximizing the reproductive success of the small population.

Masuda explained how temperature and humidity are key physical parameters for egg incubation leading to successful hatching. If the eggs are left in the parents’ nest, the adult alala may step on them, kick them out or not incubate them very well. Pulling the eggs and placing them in incubation enables the center staff to closely monitor conditions and maintain a perfect climate to allow the best chances for the eggs to hatch. It also gives the female an opportunity to lay more eggs, he added.

Masuda described the hatching process as “nerve-wracking,” saying it can take an alala chick more than 24 hours to come out of its egg. He said his staff has also assisted hatching for problematic eggs. In such cases, staff members help peel back the eggshell piece by piece and pause to allow for landmarks.

Once the chicks hatch, they are hand-reared until they are old enough to feed themselves — typically 60 days. Every two hours, eight times a day, the chicks are fed a regular and precise diet of fruit, honeybee larvae and cricket guts. Later on, scrambled eggs are added in the mix.

This is the second year the center also has allowed natural incubation and parent-rearing for select alala pairs. Mothers have been successfully feeding and caring for some of their chicks.

Masuda said all nine chicks are doing well, and four are now feeding themselves and in an aviary with other birds the same age.

With these new chicks, the center has brought the population from a low of only 20 birds in 1994 to 114 today.

The Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program is a field program of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, in partnership with the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Planning and preparation efforts are underway to restore alala into its niche within the forest ecosystem on Hawaii Island.

While it is unknown exactly when the reintroduction will occur, Masuda hopes to release 15 alala a year in a pristine forest that’s plentiful with fruiting plants. Before this can happen, he said considerations must be made with partners, and their habitat must be safe and free of obstacles that caused their decline in the first place. This means a multifaceted approach to conservation, which includes habitat restoration and mitigation of threats to wild populations. Funding is also a key component to reintroduction, Masuda said.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Global, a nonprofit with expertise in animal care and conservation science. Its Keauhou Bird Conservation Center is not open to the public. However once a year in December, the center hosts an open house offering tours and stories about its program, Simmons said.

To help the alala, Masuda encouraged the public to learn more about the efforts to help these birds and spread the word about this keystone species of the Hawaii forest. Endemic to Hawaii Island, the alala help disperse native seeds in the ecosystem. The alala also holds special importance to Native Hawaiians who consider it an aumakua, or a family guardian spirit, he added.

Education and awareness will only not only garner more appreciation about the alala, but help as they return to the wild, Masuda said.

To learn more about the center, go to sandiegozoo.org.