Hatching Hope


The Maui Bird Conservation Center opens once a year to the public, but efforts to keep critically endangered native Hawaiian birds alive go on year-round.

The Upcountry center hosted nearly 200 people for its annual open house Saturday and Sunday. Guests were given tours across the 6-acre complex and learned about how workers tend to the 60 resident birds – members of four species.

“Because of our staffing numbers and our goal of captive breeding and propagation, we aren’t normally open to the public,” research coordinator Josh Kramer said. “This is the one weekend of the year we’re open because we want to show the community what we’re doing up here.”

Three tours were given on each day and began with a slideshow presentation with information on the captive birds’ species: puaiohi, palila, ‘alala and kiwikiu.

The puaiohi is brownish in color and found in remote areas of Kauai, with a little more than 500 estimated in the wild.

The palila is identified by its bright yellow head and found on the southwest slope of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the palila population dropped from about 4,400 in 2003 to 1,200 in 2010.

The ‘alala, also known as the Hawaiian crow, is black in color and currently extinct in the wild. The crow had previously been found on the Big Island.

The kiwikiu, also known as the Maui parrotbill, is yellowish in color and gets its name from its parrotlike bill. Around 500 exist in the wild and are found in the Hanawi Natural Area Reserve, Haleakala National Park and the Waikamoi Preserve.

During Sunday’s presentation, Kramer spoke of the birds and also the state of Hawaii’s forests, which are “the most threatened bird habitat in the U.S.”

“Pigs, sheep and goats have devastated Hawaii’s forests, and native Hawaii birds are naive to mammals they didn’t evolve with,” he said. “You also have mosquitoes with avian pox and avian malaria, which have forced native birds to move to higher elevations” where many have had difficulties surviving.

“With all these predators and hardships, that’s where we step in,” Kramer said.

Originally a prison that was last used in the late 1950s, all of the center’s buildings have been converted into bird-rearing facilities and offices, research associate Natalie Staples said. Staples is one of five full-time workers at the center, which also has three resident interns.

On Sunday, Staples led a group through areas such as the “Bird Barn,” where visitors could peer through holes in converted prison cells to observe puaiohi and kiwikiu.

The diet for each of the birds varies, and Staples displayed their foods on prison trays. The kiwikiu, for example, gets its bright color from silkworms but particularly enjoys wax worms for their high fat content.

“We like to spoil our birds here,” Staples said.

While feeding the ‘alala and kiwikiu, however, workers must use a puppet and sometimes completely cover themselves in order to avoid domesticating the birds; Staples showed the two puppets used.

During feeding, workers incorporate enrichment methods such as puzzles and squeaky toys to keep the birds alert and engaged.

“It’s really funny to walk in the back and all you hear is squeaky toys,” she said squeezing a toy in demonstration.

Further in the tour, Staples demonstrated her responsibility during breeding season. Inside the feeding room, visitors watched a video explaining ‘alala hatchings and courtship between male and female birds.

“The male will go up to her and vomit in her mouth, which is very romantic,” she said.

Staples said that when an egg is laid, workers replace the mother’s egg after about 10 days with a fake one. This method ensures that the mother does not accidentally damage the real egg and prevents her from laying another too quickly, which may lead to a thinner-shelled and less-developed egg.

“We have to be very, very careful when we’re doing this because the eggs are so fragile. We actually cut our fingernails just in case,” Staples said.

The tour concluded with a stop at another barn that housed a new group of palila that arrived at the facility as a breeding project in the spring.

Before arriving at the building, though, the group received a sobering message from Staples, who explained how their efforts had failed with the now-extinct po’ouli.

“It’s a great reminder for why we’re here, doing what we do,” she said.

Participating visitors said they enjoyed the exclusive tour, including Robert Santos of Olowalu.

Santos, who was wearing one of the center’s shirt that he had purchased on his first trip to the annual open house last year, said he enjoyed his first tour but added, “It was hard to take it all in one time.”

“‘Alala are so animated and personable that I didn’t have as much time to see them because there were so many people,” he said. “I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity.”

Seattle tourists Gerry Sison and Kyla Grogan took their first tour of the building Sunday. The couple were visiting Maui for a wedding and said they were looking for things to do during their weeklong stay and stumbled upon the open house.

“It was awesome. We got to see some of the native birds and . . . we saw that this was only open once a year so we thought we should come,” Sison said.

Paia resident Jupiter Nielsen, his 3-year-old daughter, ‘Ohi’a, and his mother, Joanie, also were in attendance Sunday and made reservations for the tour about two weeks prior.

“I’ve wanted to come every year for the past 10 years, or however long they’ve been doing this, because we do all kinds of conservation efforts,” said Jupiter Nielsen, who volunteers with organizations such as The Nature Conservancy. “There was more facilities than I thought, and they’re breeding a lot more than I thought . . . it seems very successful.”

The facility has released 222 puaiohi into the wild since 1999 and 28 palila since 2003. No kiwikiu have been released yet, but officials hope to release a number of ‘alala next year.

“Fingers crossed,” Staples said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.