Hatching Additions to `Alala Flock

Posted at 1:13 pm July 2, 2010 by Jeremy Hodges

These eight new alala chicks represent 10 percent of the world's population.

To me, one of the most exciting aspects of working with the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) is artificially incubating eggs. `Alala (or Hawaiian crow) eggs are incubated for approximately 22 days until they hatch (see Corvid Cupid). Once we pull an egg from the nest, we are able to monitor the embryo’s developmental progress by regularly candling the egg. Eventually, this enables us to identify the first step of the hatching process: the embryo’s beak pushing into the air cell. The air cell is the pocket of air at the top of the blunt end of the egg. With its beak in the air cell, the embryo’s lungs start to activate, which enables the blood to be drawn in from the vessels wrapped around the inside of the eggshell that had previously been used for gas exchange.

Just before or soon after an embryo first breaks through the eggshell (known as an external pip), we move the egg into a hatcher that is maintained at a constant temperature of 99 degrees Fahrenheit. The hatcher also needs to be very humid so that the hatching chick doesn’t dry out and stick to the membranes and residual albumen found inside the egg. Another important component of the hatching process is for the chick to know that there is a “parent bird” out there waiting for it to hatch. We simulate this by putting speakers inside the hatcher that we use to broadcast `alala vocalizations for a few minutes every hour. Periodically we also tap very gently on the eggs. The embryo often responds to these stimuli by increasing its efforts to hatch out of the egg. While some `alala embryos take up to 36 hours to hatch after the first external pip, we have been spoiled this season with some embryos hatching only 6 hours after they make their external pips. That translates into fewer sleepless nights for HEBCP staff, since externally pipped eggs require frequent monitoring throughout the night, in case we need to intervene and provide assistance.

Watch an `alala hatch!

With these efforts, the `alala flock of the HEBCP has been receiving the welcome addition of new chicks. The 2010 breeding season got off to an encouraging start, with the earliest `alala hatches in the history of the program. As of July 1, 2010, we have so far hatched 12 `alala chicks, with 11 surviving, currently ranging in age from just 1 day to 2 months. This brings the total known population of `alala up to 78 birds.

Each breeding season involves stress, sleepless nights, hard work, and occasionally even a few gray hairs for the staff of HEBCP. But more importantly, we each get the rewarding task of helping to bring `alala chicks into the world and the `alala back from the brink of extinction.

Jeremy Hodges is a research coordinator with the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read his previous post, Spring Cleaning in Hawaii.

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9 Responses to “Hatching Additions to `Alala Flock”

  1. Lee in Vancouver says:

    Congratulations Jeremy to you and all you team. If my math is correct that is a jump by 16% of the known Alala’s in the world. Possibly more to come?

  2. Michael Westerfield says:

    That’s fantastic news. Going to be building a bunch more aviaries? The picture is really wonderful.

  3. Mae was from NJ says:

    Great news! Your sleepless nights and tireless efforts are helping keep the alala off the extinction list.

    Thank you for your dedication to and passion for this Hawaiian crow.

    I wish you many more days and nights of stress and hard work if they result in more birds hatching. Just kidding. Here’s hoping that the remaining eggs hatch in 6 hours too!

  4. Gretchen says:

    The information about how the chick’s beak in the air cell stimulates the lungs to start working fascinates me. It’s one of those things that I never thought about, but once I read it I thought, yeah, that makes sense–but how amazing!

    Thanks for educating me and endless good wishes for the alalas’ population health!

  5. Michael Westerfield says:

    Thank you so much for posting the video of the “alala chick hatching. It was the next best thing to being present at that wonderful moment in the history of the restoration of this wonderful bird. I’ve posted the link on crows.net to share it with all of our visitors.

  6. Michael Westerfield says:

    I know you folks are busy and are doing fantastic work, but the last update you posted on ‘alala chicks was two months ago and a lot of their fans are wondering how things are going. Did all of the original 8 chicks survive? Did any others hatch? What is the total number of Hawaiian crows now in the world. Visitors to the Hawaiian crow page on our crows.net website ask us these questions on a regular basis and we’d like to be able to answer them. Outreach is one of the goals of the Recovery Plan, so maybe an update of the blog every couple of weeks would help ‘alala fans help you in that regard.

  7. Iwikauikaua says:

    Mahalo nui loa to all my HEBCP peeps! Keep up the good work, without you mother hens tending to the birds our next generations might not have the privelege of seeing them or hearing their melodious calls. Thanks again!

  8. Tanya Hill says:

    I ‘ve been keeping up with the alala story for many years, living on Kauai.

    The birds were once more widespread across the islands. I know the plan to release them is still a long way off and the plan will be to return them to their last homelands now being restored. The hawk, habitat loss and disease were their main problems. I wonder at the wisdom of an eventual release into hawk territory – their main predator.
    The ground nesting nene are only successful on Kauai, because the mongoose their main predator is not here. It would be a good to release the birds on islands where there are no hawks but the alala are in the fossil record.

    The Waipa foundation on Kauai is restoring a pig fenced ahu’pu’a between two ridges (mountain valley to sea) with massive funding (Bishop). Invasive trees have been removed and tracts of land have been planted with native koa and other trees including understory shrubs, mostly by native Hawaiian funding and volunteers. There are no hawks. Just a thought.

    It’s moist here, lichens and moss grow well. An old friend once told me with great sadness his last sighting of a group of alala, conversing, high in the branches of Koa trees tugging away at thick lichens and moss on the trees to get at the insects, I’ve seen ravens do this. They weren’t collecting for a nest. On his return journey in the evening the Koa forest had gone.

    I was so relieved when real experts took control of this breeding program, if anyone could do it , you could. I love these blogs, thank you. Is the hatching video down at the moment.

    Moderator’s note: It’s working on our computers. Is your player the newest version?

  9. Richard Switzer says:

    Aloha Tanya.

    Thank you so much for your insight into the great work of the Waipa Foundation and their attempts to restore the balance of the forest ecosystem on Kauai. It’s tremendous to hear about the progress being made.

    You raise a very good point about the i`o (Hawaiian hawk). This is a subject that is frequently discussed among biologists involved in the plans for `alala recovery. Certainly the i`o would have always been a predator, to a certain extent, on the wild `alala population on the Big Island. In recent times, it is possible that this level of predation may have been exacerbated by a number of factors:
    1) Disease, such as avian malaria and toxoplasmosis (spread in particular by feral cats), may have made the birds more susceptible to predation while they were feeling ill.
    2) As you know, the understory of the forest has been extensively destroyed by feral ungulates. This may have altered the ability of the birds to seek refuge in the understorey from i`o attacks.
    3) Once the wild population of `alala reached such low numbers, it is possible that the flock behavior (particularly of youngsters) may have been impacted and consequently the `alala may have been less able to respond to i`o attacks, for example, with mobbing behavior.
    4) It is also possible that the birds released in the 1990s may have lost the learned behavior to respond defensively to i`o predation after being raised in captivity. (However, there is no doubt that captive `alala recognize the i`o as a threat, judging by the alarm calls if ever an i`o flies over the aviaries.)

    In planning the release sites for the `alala releases that will hopefully begin within a few years, we will be working with biologists from the State of Hawaii, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the `Alala Recovery Team. These potential release sites have been evaluated according to a number of criteria. Certainly the threat of the i`o and the management measures to ameliorate these threats are key considerations within this decision-making process. Similarly, type, size and quality of the forest is a key consideration, too. It is unlikely that Kauai will be chosen as a release site for `alala in the near future, but you never know what may happen long-term.

    Crucially, whichever site is chosen for the first `alala releases, it is vital that the ecosystem, and the release birds, are managed long-term in order to ensure the best possible chances of survival and for re-establishing a wild population.