The new year is about hope for the better, and one thing that signifies this to me is the valiant work performed at the Maui Bird Conservation Center in the old low-security prison at the top of Olinda Road.
There, a young, dedicated staff watches over a highly technical program to breed in captivity three of Hawaii's critically endangered birds:
* The 'alala, or Hawaiian crow, significant in Hawaiian culture as an 'aumakua, now extinct in the wild. Its population was estimated at 20 in 1994, but The Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (in conjunction with a branch on the Big Island) has hatched more than 130 chicks since 1993, and a plan is in the works to re-establish a population in the wild.
* The puaiohi, or small Kauai thrush, found only in the 'Alakai wilderness preserve on Kauai. There were only 200-300 birds when the program initiated recovery efforts in 1996. Since then more than 300 have been hatched and 200 released back into the forest, where the wild population stands now at approximately 600 birds.
* The kiwikiu, or Maui parrotbill. This insectivorous Hawaiian honeycreeper is found only in two populations at Hanawi in the wet forest slopes of Haleakala, one with 500, one with 250. The program's goal is to establish a second wild population at Kahikinui with captive-bred birds.
Hawaii's birds were once the wonder of the world, with 22 genera and at least 50 species, all evolved from a few rosefinches that arrived from Asia several million years ago. Now, according to Josh Kramer, research manager of the Olinda facility, "extirpation" is a reality.
Thirty-eight percent of endangered bird species are in Hawaii, while only 5 percent of the federal funding comes here. (Note to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.) This means only the worst cases receive concentrated focus. "All of the native birds are in peril," said Kramer. "Some are doing better than others."
We enjoyed a rare tour there late last year, offered only annually. "Our job is to make babies," said research assistant Michelle Smith, no small feat. Many of the captive hens have lost their native mothering ability and a third don't reliably sit on their eggs. "Some of our birds are no good at it. They play soccer with the eggs. They pick at them."
When a videocam shows this happening, the mothers are provided with dummy eggs and the real ones are whisked off to an artificial incubator, which controls temperature and humidity. There the eggs are constantly evaluated and treated to ensure that conditions are right. This includes rotating them 90 degrees every two hours, and opening the door to simulate mom leaving the nest and coming back.
We were led through the pine to a forest bird barn where in large 15-by-20-foot aviaries decked out with koa and 'ohia "browse" the puaiohi and kiwikiu can forage for insects. Their food includes fruit, and berries from such native plants as pa'iniu, 'a'ali'i, 'olapa, pukiawe, 'uki'uki, and pilo, along with the blossoms of 'ohia and mamane.
(Gifts of these precious treats, including mulberries, are always welcome, and the staff would love to come clip your koa and 'ohia trees if you have branches to spare. Call the center at 572-0690; volunteers are welcome).
I couldn't spot the puaiohi, but was captivated by a glimpse of "Chui," forest bird No. 10, a parrotbill so named for the bird's distinctive call. He's a plump little guy, yellow-green with the distinctive curved bill, one of a marked pair caught in the wild. It made me happy to see him hopping from branch to branch.
Soon we were ushered away to the raucous flight aviaries of the juvenile 'alala, two feet long with shiny black feathers, who filled the air with their squawkings and poundings and carryings-on. "We hear this all day long," said intern Zoe Swanson.
They feed on a colorful diet of banana, apple, papaya, scrambled eggs, "monkey biscuits" and (yum!) thawed lab mice. "One of our big expenses is getting frozen lab rats shipped overnight on dry ice," confessed Smith.
As we returned, I stole a glance back into the forest bird barn and the domicile of Maui parrotbill No. 3. I couldn't see her, but from within I heard the sweetest song.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.