Issue 12.6: December 2009 / January 2010

A Bird in the Hand

story by Joan Conrow


Squeaky clean, with antiseptic foot dips and a larder stocked with mealworms and frozen mice, the Big Island’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center feels like the avian intensive care unit that it is.


In one of fifty open-air aviaries set in the cool, misty back yard of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a palila, an endangered native honeycreeper, pecks on the seed pods of a mamane. It’s one of many native trees, along with ohia, naio and koa, growing on KBCC’s grounds, giving the feathered inhabitants a taste, literally, of the rain forests where they might one day live.


Until then this facility, funded by the San Diego Zoo, is home to the last sixty alala (Hawaiian crows) on Earth, along with small flocks of puaiohi (native thrushes), palila and Maui parrotbill—all endemic forest birds whose numbers in the wild have plummeted. Half of Hawaii’s original 140 bird species—creatures found nowhere else—have slid into extinction; the other half remain endangered, some critically. The causes of their decline is vividly illustrated by a wall mural in KBCC’s main building: images of native forest besieged by pigs, deer, cattle, weeds, rats, mongooses, wild cats and malaria-carrying mosquitoes.


While land managers work to restore that damaged habitat, KBCC raises endangered chicks. It’s a tough mission, personally and professionally. Managing fertility cycles and genetics in tiny flocks is a challenge. And then there’s the psychological pressure of hand-rearing fragile chicks, some barely the weight of an unwrapped Hershey’s kiss. “They are very sensitive birds,” says Alan Lieberman, KBCC’s director. “If you make a mistake with a chick, it can be fatal. These species do not tolerate stress of any kind … and mortality is not something we take well,” he continues. “A lot of people can’t handle it. People go home in tears.”


But they don’t lose many. KBCC, the world’s first facility to breed rainforest birds, developed its pioneering techniques by experimenting on more common Hawaii birds. It’s since perfected propagation recipes for twelve native forest species, seven of them endangered.


The research has already borne fruit. Some twenty-eight captive-raised palila have been released on Mauna Kea over the past four years, and 176 puaiohi have been set free in Kauai’s Alakai Swamp since 1998. Even the alala, extinct in the wild, could again fly in Big Island forests; releases are planned once the KBCC population hits seventy-five in a few years.