Alala: Does Mother Know Best?

Here is alala Pomahina's nest and two eggs.

These are two of the three eggs PoMahina was incubating; photo taken during one of several brief nest checks

Spring is the time of year when most birds are busy building nests, laying eggs, and raising hungry chicks. For the alala (Hawaiian crow), it has been more than 20 years since any members of the species have successfully raised their own young. Since its inception, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program has focused on pulling eggs for artificial incubation and hand-raising chicks as a means of maximizing the reproductive success of the tiny alala population. However, this spring there is change and new hope in the air! We are happy, but cautious, to announce that we have a female alala showing promising indications of successfully rearing her chicks!

Pulling alala eggs from the parents’ nest and then placing the eggs in incubators enables us to closely monitor the conditions that would allow the best chances for the eggs to hatch. It also gives the female an opportunity to lay more eggs. Once the chicks hatch, they are hand-reared until they are old enough to feed themselves. These alala parent pairs have great genetic value because they only have a few or no offspring, meaning their genes are not well represented in our flock’s family tree.

Over the last 4 years we have raised 53 alala chicks, and at the start of the 2013 season, the population stood at 108 birds. Now that we have a solid footing in the recovery effort, we are focusing our effort on natural incubation and parent-rearing for a select few alala pairs. One of our more prolific females, PoMahina, comes from a well-represented genetic line and already has three surviving offspring in the flock. This gives us the rare luxury of being able to allow her the chance to parent-rear.

Not surprisingly there are many questions and concerns about whether alala will be able to take care of their own offspring. All 108 alala in existence have been hand-raised. It has been speculated that there could be learned behaviors and an alala “culture” that may have been handed down through the generations in the wild that has been lost. Two years ago, an alala egg was given to a female, shortly before hatch, for her to attempt to foster-parent rear the chick. The foster mother was seen on camera feeding and caring for the chick, but sadly, the chick died a few days later. Unfortunately, not much is known about how alala reproduced in the wild. It is crucial that we use opportunities like this to learn as much as we can about the monitoring and management of alala nests to give the species a greater chance of survival in the wild. With the first release of alala potentially planned for 2014, the timing could not be any better!

In early April, PoMahina laid three eggs, and after a brief nest check to the eggs, we confirmed that all three were fertile. After approximately 23 days of incubation, three tiny chicks hatched on April 30, May 1, and May 2. Keep visiting the Hawaiian Birds blog for our updates on how the parent-rearing process is going!

Amy Kuhar is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii. Read her previous post, Pizza for the Birds.

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