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.”
“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.”
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