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Endangered Birds Nest Safely in Olinda

Maui Bird Conservation Center helps prevent extinction of Native Hawaiian birds.

November 14, 2013
Karen Worthington , Maui Weekly

The last time the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) made history was Nov. 26, 2004, when the last known po'ouli took its last breath in the center's infirmary. The fight for its survival was the subject of a book, and its death was covered by the New York Times.

Working arduously to prevent another such historical moment, MBCC Facility Director Josh Kramer said, "The death of the po'ouli offered a staggering reminder to all of us as a community how fragile the balance is between life and death for endemic island species, found nowhere else on Earth."

Kramer, who lives at MBCC, and his team of four employees and three interns fill their days with monitoring 24-hour video recordings of birds for behaviors indicating mating or egg-laying; on an hourly basis, recording every morsel offered to and eaten by baby birds; weighing, measuring and monitoring the temperature of both eggs and baby birds; providing veterinary care and enrichment activities for birds; cleaning aviary environments; and clearing invasive plants and replacing them with native ones.

Article Photos

Mayor Alan Arakawa was among the 200-plus visitors greeted by MBCC staff and interns during a two-day open house.
Photo: Mark Crowe

Additional activities, accomplished with the help of volunteers, Hawai'i Island's Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) and other partners, include spending days silently watching nets on the most remote slopes of Hawai'i's volcanoes and building fences in isolated forests with supplies brought in by helicopter. The fences protect the endangered birds' natural habitat from pigs, goats and deer that quickly destroy the forest understory.

The race to prevent extinction of Native Hawaiian birds is made possible by unique partnerships with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, the State of Hawai'i Division of Forestry and Wildlife and many others. These and other partners provide services as varied as the responsibilities of MBCC staff--24-hour access to world-class veterinarians at the San Diego Zoo and twice yearly visits from these vets, free passage on Hawaiian Airlines to transport birds among the partner facilities, donations of native plants for feeding the birds and planting on the property, donations of toys and objects for bird enrichment activities and access to restricted areas of national parks with permission to gather bird food such as mamame seeds and flowers.

MBCC is supported by federal and state dollars along with some private grants and donations.

One tool for protecting endangered birds is public education and outreach, which is designed to "enhance everyone's desire to preserve Maui's unique biodiversity," according to MBCC literature. Each year in November, safely after the birds' mating season has ended, MBCC opens its doors for a free open house with tours, lectures, keiki activities, food and fundraising through a silent auction and T-shirt sales.

"Since we are closed to the public," said Research Associate Michelle Smith, "most people don't know we're here or what we do. This is an opportunity to share our work."

Among the 200 visitors on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 2 and 3, were Mayor Alan Arakawa and his wife Ann. The mayor said MBCC is good for Maui "because birds are our indicators, and if we lose our indicators, we lose our method of being able to see what is going on with our island ecosystem." He said that nature had a reason for everything it originally placed on Maui, and everything people have put here has changed that. "Every change may not be productive," he said, expressing concern about the impact of people on the environment. He described the delicate balance of Maui's ecosystem, saying "We need to recreate our forests and wetlands in order to repopulate our oceans."

Bringing the public into MBCC allows people to see candling, a technique used to monitor the health of developing eggs, and touch bird puppets used to feed baby birds to prevent them from becoming familiar with humans. In addition, visitors see the family tree of the 'alala, the detailed logs staff keep on birds and the toys used for enrichment activities. Visitors also learn of threats facing native birds, such as mosquitoes carrying bird malaria and invasive plants crowding out natural food sources, and ways to reduce such threats.

Visitors also view birds that are rare or extinct in the wild. One of these, the Maui parrotbill, is a critically endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper that is found only in the wet forests of Haleakala. About 500 parrotbills, one of the 26 species remaining of the original 51 species of Hawaiian honeycreepers, live in the wild, and another 109 live at MBCC and KBCC.

The 'alala, or Hawaiian crow, has been extinct in the wild since 2002. In 1994 the 'alala population was estimated to be 20 birds. MBCC has hatched and raised enough 'alala that a group of young birds will be released onto the windward slopes of Mauna Kea in 2014.

MBCC hopes that the fate of the 'alala follows that of the nene goose. About 60 years ago, there were only 30 to 40 nene in the wild, but MBCC raised that number to over 2,000. Although the captive breeding program was closed due to its success, MBCC's nene pens remain intact, a visible reminder of the fragility of this accomplishment.

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