Another breeding season with the alala in Hawaii has flown by! Po Mahina’s chicks have grown so big, so fast (see post Alala Mom Shows How It’s Done). When the chicks reached 40 and 41 days old, we conducted our last nest check. We suspected that they might fledge soon. Rather than accidentally startle them out of the nest prematurely, we wanted to give them privacy so that they would fledge when they felt comfortable and safe. At this time, the chicks weighed around 410 grams or 14 ounces (younger chick) and 500 grams or 17 ounces (older chick) and were fully feathered, with the exception that their wing feathers remain shortened and their tail feathers stubby due to frequently rubbing against the nest.
Sexing results came back showing that the younger chick is a female and the older chick is a male, which we suspected due to our historical data of alala chick weights. As they have grown, their voices have also grown much louder, too; staff could easily hear the chicks begging to Po Mahina from all the way outside the building!
Our hand-raised alala chicks fledge in a gradual process. They are given large sticks to perch on and spend time going back and forth from their nest tubs to the perches that are both on ground level. Po Mahina’s nest, however, was about 15 feet above the ground. This had our staff wondering: would the chicks would make it out of the nest safely or make a crash landing? The small amount of knowledge that we have about the alala in the wild suggests that they nest in medium to large ohia trees, and that youngsters around 42 days old steadily start to venture along the adjacent tree branches and frequently come back to the nest to rest. To recreate a similar environment for the captive alala, we attached rope to the nest platform to give the chicks some highways from their nest, including down to the ground. Extra perches were also placed close to the nest to give the chicks easy access.
We watched, biting our nails, as the chicks soon became brave enough to stand on the ledge of their nest and contemplate the world below them. A couple weeks leading up to fledging, the chicks started to exercise their wings, flapping them vigorously at the nest, especially when Po Mahina would come around to bring food. Now that her chicks were almost adult size, the nest was crowded, and she spent most of her time watching over her chicks from a nearby perch.
At around noon on day 45, the male nestling became a fledgling! However, looking at the video footage, it seems it might not have been on purpose! The chick was perched at the ledge of the nest platform facing the nest, and he leaned a little bit too far backward, losing his balance and falling off. The chick’s ungraceful dismount had us racing up to the aviary to see if he was okay. The chick was crouched down on the ground with his feathers a little ruffled, but after a quick physical exam, we determined he wasn’t hurt but probably just a little stunned from the fall. A couple of hours later that same day, the younger chick, after carefully considering the jump from the nest, opened her wings and simply hopped to a nearby perch.
In the wild, alala fledglings can’t fly well for the first few weeks after fledging and spend a lot of time in the understory of the forest. This is when the alala are most vulnerable to predators like the io (Hawaii’s native hawk), cats, and mongooses. Our parent-reared chicks seemed to follow the same pattern. They stayed on perches lower to the ground for the first couple of weeks, sometimes making clumsy attempts to fly before crashing and tumbling to the ground, just like a new toddler learning to walk. Po Mahina paid close attention to them, bringing food to them often. Slowly, the chicks have learned to eat on their own, and now they eagerly come down to their food pans when they are fed every morning. However they still love to beg to Po Mahina, hoping for some free handouts! These chicks will stay with Po Mahina until just before the start of next breeding season. Then it will be time to move them into their own aviaries so that Po Mahina can build another nest and, hopefully, raise more chicks.
It has been such a great experience watching these chicks develop and being able to share this conservation story with the world. It’s another big step for the alala in their journey back to the wild. Aloha!
Amy Kuhar is a research associate at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii.