Sunday, October 19, 2014

Paluman Marianas #2: I Sihek

Eight years ago on my blog, I started a series titled "Paluman Marianas," meant to feature different native birds of the Marianas and my drawings or paintings of them. I only did one, for I Tettot or the Marianas Fruit dove, and never got around to posting another one. I have plenty of drawings and paintings that feature Guam's birds, in fact with my daughter Sumahi, I've added quite a few more. Sumahi loves to draw in general, but I've tried to teach her as much as I can about the native birds of the Marianas. She can name many of them, probably more than most kids nowadays. But sharing this part of our heritage with her reminded me of my long forgotten series of Paluman Marianas. I wanted to add another one today, #2: I sihek, the Micronesian Kingfisher.


Micronesian Kingfisher - Guam
Information courtesy of

The Micronesian kingfisher (Halcyon cinnamomina cinnamonina) is one of the world's most endangered bird species. In the 1980s, the Philadelphia Zoo took part in an emergency rescue operation to save the last 29 wild kingfishers from extinction on Guam and bring them back to the United States. The species is now extinct in the wild. The only remaining kingfishers-58 in all-are in United States zoos.

Today, the Philadelphia Zoo and several of its staff members play important roles in the conservation of the kingfisher. Beth Bahner, animal collections manager, is the studbook keeper for the Micronesian kingfisher (the studbook is the record of the history of the captive population). She is also the species coordinator for the AZA's Micronesian Kingfisher Species Survival Plan (SSP). In these important roles, Ms. Bahner helps manage the captive population of Micronesian kingfishers, deciding which animals should mate to keep the very small population as diverse and healthy as possible. Dr. Aliza Baltz, the Zoo's curator of birds, is the SSP's vice-coordinator and Barbara Toddes, director of nutrition programs, is one of the SSP's nutrition advisors.

The Zoo's work with the kingfisher dates back to 1983, when the Guam Bird Rescue Project was launched. The Philadelphia Zoo played a major role in the rescue and identification of the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) as the primary culprit in the demise of Guam's birds. Philadelphia also took the lead in the development of a captive-breeding program for the Guam subspecies of the Micronesian kingfisher (Halcyon cinnamomina cinnamonina), one of three bird species removed from the island for captive management. All but one pair of the 29 kingfishers captured on Guam between 1984 and 1986 came to the Philadelphia Zoo for quarantine and acclimatization.

At the time, no known record existed of this species in captivity. Thus, the Zoo's husbandry techniques had to be developed based on limited information about their natural history and past experiences with other unrelated species of kingfisher. Fortunately, initial efforts proved successful, and the program got off to a good start. The first captive hatch occurred at the Bronx Zoo in 1985 and the first successful parent-reared chick was hatched at the Philadelphia Zoo later that year. Taking advantage of the fact that we knew the origin of all of the wild-caught birds, Beth Bahner became the official AZA studbook keeper for the Micronesian kingfisher in 1986, compiling and tracking the history of the population for purposes of demographic and genetic management. In 1988 the program was elevated to an AZA Species Survival Plan (SSP), and by 1990 the population had grown to 65 birds in 21 institutions.

In the winter of 1990-1991, a freeze in Florida left zoos unable to obtain Anolis lizards, the mainstay of the captive diet. That year brought high mortality, including the loss of eight breeding-age females, which temporarily halted population growth. It remains unknown whether or not the absence of lizards contributed to this decline. The coincidence, however, led to an evaluation of feeding practices and nutritional analysis of the diet. Since then, the program has continued but at a slow pace, with hatches and deaths effectively canceling one another out. Population growth has been stymied by high mortality in birds in the two-to-six age class, with no one cause predominating. As of December 2002, the current population consists of 58 birds in 11 institutions.

The Micronesian Kingfisher SSP is now working with the United States Fish & Wildlife Service to update the Endangered Species Act Recovery Plan for this species. The primary goal of this program is to reintroduce this species on Guam (that is, release captive-bred birds back on the island). This depends, however, on our ability to maintain a captive population capable of sustaining such a reintroduction and having adequate controls in place to limit predation by the brown tree snake. The plan now is to return birds to Guam in 2003 for captive breeding, in the hope that the birds' natural environment and foods will help resolve some of the problems plaguing this population.

Despite the setbacks, staff members of the Philadelphia Zoo's animal department still hope one day to see the return of Micronesian kingfishers to Guam. The Philadelphia Zoo now holds five male and three female Micronesian kingfishers, all ranking within the top 10 most genetically valuable birds for each sex. The birds are currently housed in off-exhibit facilities in the large and small greenhouse propagation facilities, built specifically for the Guam Bird Rescue and the Hawaiian Bird Projects.

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