Keeping Up With Kinohi – San Diego Zoo’s Rare Alala

This is Kinohi, an ‘alala (Hawaiian crow) hatched in captivity 20 years ago. Growing up, he lacked other crows to socialize with, and so he developed an unusual vocabulary. But while we may find his human-like babble amusing, there is nothing funny about the fact that he will not breed.

Kinohi was sent to the San Diego Zoo in 2009 so that Dr. Barbara Durrant, director of Reproductive Physiology at the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, and her staff could train him for semen collection. As one of only 60 ‘alala left in the world, Kinohi is very important to that population; unfortunately, he is behaviorally compromised and just does not get on with the ladies. His genes will be lost unless Dr. Durrant’s team intervenes. Their goal for the last year is to collect semen to artificially inseminate a compatible female.

Says Diane Van Dien, Research Technician working on the Kinohi project, “Working with Kinohi certainly is a challenge. Crows are very smart, and if we are not careful, he’ll end up training us instead of the other way around! Luckily, we have had the help of the keepers at both the HVMC and the Bird Breeding Center. They have shared their insights with us as well as making sure all of Kinohi’s needs are met, from food and water to appropriate perches and toys.

We’ve had to spend time getting to know Kinohi’s personality and gaining his trust. In the beginning, he would never sit still for long, and we felt successful if we had just one solid minute to pet him and left without any new bruises from his beak pounding on our ankles. But little by little we have seen Kinohi transform from an anxious bird, constantly hopping from perch to ground, to one who sits contentedly to get his head scratched. He now perches with his feathers so fluffed that he almost looks like a youngster, and he will even close his eyes while I rub his head feathers and Barbara pets his back and tail, abdomen and cloaca. (The cloaca is the one hole through which everything passes in a bird.) Eventually he sidles away, hops over to his cardboard box, and fusses with the grasses inside, mumbling to himself. Then we try to lure him back. When he cooperates, he gets one of his favorite treats: a piece of mouse or a waxworm. When he refuses to come back, the session is over.”

A Wild Alala

With only 70 known ‘alala left on the planet, Kinohi’s genes are extremely important. Diane continues:

“We like to think Kinohi looks forward to our visits. When we enter the anteroom to his new indoor-outdoor enclosure, he calls out, letting us know he knows we are there. As we cut up his mouse into a cup (the pieces are his reward for cooperating with us), Kinohi waits at the door, peering at our feet through the small space at the bottom. To position his eye low enough to see us, he hangs his head upside down, the top of his head resting on the floor.

Spring marks the beginning of the breeding season, and while the ‘alala in Hawaii have been building nests, Kinohi also has been responding to the lengthening daylight. A few weeks ago, he began saving part of his food reward in his beak. It is now his routine to pick up the pieces of mouse one by one, but after swallowing a few, he holds the rest in the back of his mouth. Then, when he has emptied the cup, he takes the morsels to the box that serves as his nest. We think he is trying to bring food to an imaginary mate. He mumbles in a whiny tone, moving the food pieces up and down over his tongue, giving his voice a gurgling quality. Eventually he leaves the nest box, lines up the pieces of mouse on a perch, and eats them one by one as though savoring each bite.”

We encourage our readers to get involved in supporting this cause as one of the most critical conservation efforts involving Crows currently underway.  Click here to view the conservation blog, or visit the main donation site.

Shade, a Very Smart Raven Widgets

Author Diane Phelps Budden witnessed firsthand the special relationship between Sedona resident Emily Cory and a raven and found it so inspiring that she has written a book for children, “Shade: A Story About a Very Smart Raven.” Cory was training Shade to rescue people in the Red Rock country of Sedona and one morning, while the raven was scouring her surroundings for breakfast, she came upon a man wandering in the desert, lost. Shade flies home to tell Cory, and they set off to find the man and lead him to safety, using her tracker. The story describes Shade’s potential as a search and rescue worker, much like dogs that law enforcement teams use as trackers. Cory based her master’s thesis at the University of Arizona on the feasibility of using ravens to help searchers find lost hikers in Arizona’s rugged desert areas.Says Diane of Emily, “

” She actually bought a raven fledgling , and wrote her thesis on the premise that ravens could be trained to help search and rescue teams find hikers lost in the High Country desert. Sorta like a rescue dog, but with wings! While Shade has not rescued her first person yet, Emily has trained her to recognize many words and shapes, and to wear a harness for the time when she will fly free to be tracked by a GPS device. I was so inspired with her work that I decided to write a children’s story about it.”

You can visit Diane’s blog here

Fluffy Causes Crow Catastrophe

We’ve written before about how corvids can recognize people who do them harm (and also those who do them well),  plaguing evildoers for eternity. We also just mentioned how their cousins the Grackle are known to ferociously attack anyone who messes with their babies.

This morning in my hometown of Zagreb, a little white cat set off a chain of events that now has two firetrucks, squad cars, and a circle of bystanders in a frenzy outside of the local corner store.  In an act of extremely poor judgement, the cat went for a breakfast prowl and caught itself a hatchling, leaving the other to flounder out of the nest into the bushes below. The mother bird, a Hooded Crow, erupted into a fit and began to attack everyone nearby. The sad news is that in situations like this, it is rare for the first thought to be about the bird, so no specialists were contacted. The firemen  instead spent all morning trying to catch it until the second baby was ‘eaten’ (highly unlikely – my guess is they took it away) at which point the crow flew away to mourn her terrible circumstance.

My main inspiration for conveying this story is to offer advice to anyone who may encounter a similar situation.  The answer is simple – you need to leave the bird alone. Crows (and blackbirds especially) become extremely vicious when their young are threatened, and in the case of this particular mommy, the only thing that will calm her is for her baby to be returned to safety – an act which can only be done by a trained wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife officer.  For this reason, involvement of your local WPA or Audubon is essential to safely relocate the nest and assure that visitors to the area do not continue to be assaulted.  Of course in this case, Fluffy and the firemen will likely become targets for life, but do they deserve our pity?


Crows Take a Cigarette Break

In a novel story reported by the Telegraph, Tony and Judie Ellis were vacationing in the Maldives when two  crows alighted on the roof across from their villa and calmly began extracting the cigarettes from a packet one had brought along.

‘The crow which flew past with the cigarettes seemed to be dishing them out to the others.It was taking the cigarettes out of the packet and putting them on the roof of the water villa. Then the other crows were picking them up. It was amazing that they seemed to have them in their beaks the right way round.’

The couple, who work as toy inventors, were told after the incident that crows can sometimes be a bit of a nuisance on the islands. They were told that another holidaymaker had a sandwich stolen by a cheeky crow.

Mrs Ellis said: “We have been to the Maldives four times before but never seen any sort of crow behaviour like that. I was lucky to be able to record this on my camera.”

What do we think?  Crows are a lot bigger in relation to a cigarette than shown here, so it is likely this was photoshopped, but it would not be that unusual for a pair of crows to steal an innocent vacationer’s lucky strikes and proceed to tear the filters off for nest material.

via The Telegraph