It hasn’t been an easy year here at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. February brought unusually severe flooding in upcountry Maui, where we are located. The gulch that runs through the property turned into a raging river for the first time in recent memory. Thankfully, there was no damage to the facility. We believe that this amount of rain, followed by cycles of dry and wet weather in the following months, provided ideal conditions for the dispersal and growth of a fungus called Aspergillus. It is ubiquitous in the environment, but under particular circumstances can cause major health issues for captive birds. The birds breathe in the fungal spores, which can then germinate in the lungs, and the fungus proliferates throughout the body. Typically, the results of the aspergillosis infection are fatal.
At the end of May and in early June 2013, we first started seeing the aspergillosis symptoms (labored breathing and lethargy) in two of our forest birds species: the puaiohi or small Kauai thrush and the kiwikiu or Maui parrotbill. Soon after, we put every single bird in our care on a prophylactic anti-fungal medication to protect each against the aspergillosis infection. As the alala or Hawaiian crow species captain, I feared the infection would soon start affecting the alala, which are extinct in the wild; the captive population is all that exists. The first alala to show signs of ill health was one of our male breeders, Nahoa.
Nahoa began behaving oddly one morning in early June. We noticed him perched low, he was lethargic, and looked like he didn’t feel well. A remote weight obtained by staff revealed a significant drop in body weight as well. We immediately put Nahoa on a treatment dose of the anti-fungal medication, as well as an antibiotic. Since the stress of catching up these birds can make the fungal infection significantly worse, we dosed his food with medications and made changes to his aviary so he could easily get to his food, water, and a supplemental heat lamp for warmth.
Nahoa began to improve, and his appetite increased. By July, Nahoa was well enough to be caught up in his aviary when Dr. Pat Morris and Kim Williams, both from the San Diego Zoo’s veterinary team, were here for their biannual veterinary visit. The goal was for Dr. Pat to give Nahoa a physical examination and obtain a blood sample, which confirmed our suspicions of an aspergillosis infection. Nahoa reacted well to the procedure, and we released him back into his aviary. He continued to improve and even started flying short distances again.
Unfortunately, Nahoa suddenly took a turn for the worse near the end of July and had to be moved into an AICU (avian intensive care unit) in our vet clinic. Nahoa was physically very weak and showed symptoms of poor mobility and lack of coordination; he was also having difficulty feeding himself. After being moved into the vet clinic, we began a critical-care regimen for Nahoa consisting of tube-feeding, medicating, and injecting rehydrating fluids under his skin. He also received physical therapy twice a day to keep his muscles in shape while in his weakened state. We rigged up a specially created sling for Nahoa to spend time in to build up his perching ability. Slowly, he gained weight and strength. His demeanor started to improve as well. We were all pretty excited when he began to return to his feisty self again by trying to bite us!
Miraculously, on August 31, we found Nahoa in his vet clinic enclosure standing up, unassisted—what a relief! He then quickly graduated out of the sling and no longer needed physical therapy on his legs. Within the week, he started spending time in a small, outside aviary, hopping around and exploring his new environment. On September 26, Nahoa received his last tube-feeding treatment and is now maintaining his weight on his own.
Every alala hatched into the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program receives a Hawaiian name with a significant meaning. The name Nahoa means defiant and bold, and, thus far, he has certainly lived up to it! Nahoa has surprised us all by the progress he’s made over the past few months. Based on his initial symptoms and poor prognosis, we were worried that he wouldn’t survive this infection. He has certainly beaten the odds so far and proven us all wrong. Nahoa still has a long way to go before he’s in the clear and back to his normal self, but we’re all staying positive that he’ll defeat this illness!
We received a great deal of help keeping Nahoa and the rest of the captive flock fighting through this aspergillosis infection. A BIG mahalo (thank you) to all of those who helped us throughout the past few months: Dr. Pat Morris and the rest of the veterinary staff, who provided constant advice and guidance; Christine Miller, RVT, who flew to Maui from San Diego on 24-hour’s notice to show us intensive care techniques; Keauhou Bird Conservation Center staff, who gave us moral support (and baked goods!); and our amazing interns who took everything in stride and helped out in any and every way possible (Caitlin Marrow, Melissa Whitfield, Christopher Butler, Karla Compton, and Dom D’Amico).
Natalie Staples is a research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Have Bird, Will Travel.