`Alala Population Soars Past 100

Hatching can be an exhausting process! This brand-new 'alala rests after a successful hatch.

May 13 was an exciting day: our first `alala of the 2012 season hatched at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center! Just like all our previous `alala breeding seasons, this first chick was eagerly awaited and anxiously nurtured through its first few days (see video below).

Over the past three weeks, another seven `alala chicks have hatched. Crucially, on May 31, we celebrated reaching the major milestone of 100 ‘alala in the entire world population! This is quite an achievement for a population that was down to a low of 20 individuals in 1994 and is currently considered extinct in the wild. In fact, following subsequent hatches, the population currently stands at 102 birds. We are hoping for several more chicks in the weeks to come.

This is one of Po Mahina's torpedo-shaped eggs.

This year, we have continued to apply the strategy of “assisted hatching” for several of our eggs. For example, our first two chicks are siblings from the same clutch of eggs, and both required assistance to hatch successfully. Their mother, #152 Po Mahina, is only 3 years old, and this was her very first clutch. Already it seems that Po Mahina has a tendency to lay long, narrow eggs, almost torpedo-shaped. This had implications for these two chicks; in the very final stages of the incubation period, each should have been ready to chisel the cap off its eggshell with the egg tooth on the beak. However, in both cases, the chick’s head and neck was wedged so tightly into the narrow egg that they were unable to rotate inside to cut through the shell. Consequently, these chicks were in serious danger of dying from exhaustion or asphyxiation before even having the chance to hatch. In both cases, we performed the avian equivalent of a Caesarian section. With great deliberation, we carefully peeled back the eggshell piece by piece, pausing to investigate for landmarks in the hatching process (such as the retraction of blood vessels and yolk sac) before finally releasing the head and gently extracting the chick from the remnants of its shell.

Helping an 'alala chick hatch takes steady hands!

Obviously, assisting the hatch of a chick from its shell is considered a last resort, a result of the breakdown in the chick’s normal, natural hatching processes. It is quite probable that the high incidence of assisted hatching cases is a consequence of inbreeding depression, caused by the shallow gene pool of the `alala flock. It is tremendously satisfying to watch other hatchlings burst out of their shell under their own steam!

Those first two chicks are now nearly a month old and barely recognizable from the pink, naked, and helpless neonates that were extracted from their shells. With a covering of pin feathers and equipped with a raucous voice to rowdily beg for food, they are making great progress. Eventually, these two will become members of our captive-breeding flock. However, with the `alala population now exceeding 100 birds, our Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program continues to be in a strong position to make plans with our partners for releasing and reestablishing `alala back in the wild.

Richard Switzer is an associate director of applied animal ecology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Maui Bird Conservation Center Open House.

5 Responses to `Alala Population Soars Past 100

  1. I am so thrilled that this emergency effort is being made to rehabilitate the numbers of the Hawaiian Crow. If they can get the numbers higher, then maybe they can reintroduce them back to the mesic forests of Mauna Loa on the big island of Hawaii.

  2. I was an intern at MBCC in 2003 and I think there were about 40 Alala then (?). It is so great to see the strides the program has made with this population. Alala are beautiful, intelligent, and charismatic birds that deserve the chance to thrive. Great work to everyone involved!

    • It’s great news to hear that the season is stntirag off so well. I hope you will keep us all posted periodically about the hatching rates of the various species. I know that corvid fanciers everywhere are waiting eagerly to hear about this year’s crop of alala chicks!

  3. It’s breeding programs are much of what makes the San Diego Zoo one of the premier zoos in the world. It’s good to see that it has succeeded once again. As for reintroduction in to the wild, what happened to all the Alala before? Is there enough secure habitat in Hawaii now to permit reintroduction?

    Richard responds: Many of the threats that were responsible for the extinction of ‘alala in the wild still persist: avian diseases, habitat destruction, and introduced predators. Before ‘alala can be reintroduced, it is essential to tackle the threats. At anticipated release sites, fences must be erected to keep out pigs and goats, which ravage the plants in the undergrowth of the forest, and a program must be implemented to remove introduced mammalian predators. In addition, we will need to manage the birds with close monitoring, supplemental food, and veterinary care to help the population over the hurdles for many generations to come. With so much preparation to be done, we are tentatively aiming for fall 2014 for the first ‘alala releases.

  4. Aloha,
    Congratulations on your milestone. I have been leading groups from our school for twelve years. I’m happy to hear that the program has reached such an important milestone.
    Will a puppet be used in feeding when the chicks eyes open?
    Has ny thought been given to teach the birds how to avoid humans and “natural predators? I hope these are considered, a I’m sure they are before the next release.
    Continued success and I look forward to our visit this summer.