Building Big Bird Houses on the Big Island

Can you remember back to the bird houses we built when we were kids? They were just a few crude pieces of plywood slapped together! But that plywood magically filled our yards with the beauty of birds. There’s almost nothing more fascinating than watching a mom and dad bird feed their chicks. I might be a little biased though; I’m kind of a bird nerd! The Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) located on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi has recently built some bird houses of our own, but on a much grander scale!

Over the last two years, eight large aviaries have been carefully constructed with a very special bird in mind. The ‘alalā (otherwise known as the Hawaiian Crow) is one of the rarest birds in the world. It is so rare in fact, that it’s extinct in the wild and currently the captive population stands at just 112 adults. At one point, the ‘alalā’s population dropped to just 20 birds. When a species gets that close to being completely wiped out, intensive captive breeding is sometimes the only option. These aviaries provide a safe place for the birds to live free from predators and other threats, and help to ensure that they have every chance possible of successfully breeding. They are crucial to bringing this species back from the brink of extinction!

These aviaries are built with the ‘alalā’s needs in mind. There are a lot of factors we need to consider during the planning and construction phase. We want to have optimal breeding conditions, but due to the always tight conservation budget we needed to build them as efficiently as possible to keep costs low. It can be a tricky proposition, but we had some of the best people on the job. Ever since the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) began in 1993 we have been gaining more and more knowledge about how to give the best care possible for the ‘alalā. For instance, we now have windows with two-way mirrored glass that look into the aviary, meaning we can see the birds, but they can’t see us. This allows our staff to make behavior observations without having to open the door, making it less likely to disturb the birds. Our new aviaries also come with the latest and greatest in bird home defense. Predator wire is sunk down into the ground to prevent animals like rats, mongoose or pigs from burrowing into the buildings. The aviaries are open air which gives the birds plenty of exposure to the natural environment. That being said, we utilize a fiberglass mesh screen that covers just about the entire building.  This keeps out some very nefarious mosquitoes, which carry diseases like avian malaria and avian pox. Unfortunately these diseases can make the ‘alalā very sick, so it’s crucial we keep those mosquitoes out of our new homes for the ‘alalā.

The fun really got started once the building construction was complete. It was the staff’s turn to put the finishing touches on the aviaries! We used ordinary metal shelf brackets to affix the perches to the walls of the aviary. We collected perches from the native trees here on KBCC property, the same kind of trees that the wild ‘alalā were known to roost and nest in. We also planted ferns and added logs to liven up the ground of the aviary. This gives these curious ‘alalā something to investigate when they’re not perched high above. We also scattered seeds of plants like Pilo and Kolea in the lava cinder to encourage native vegetation to grow in the aviary.

These aviaries are just a little bit more complicated than the bird houses we used to build in shop class as kids. Right now the ‘alalā are healthy, happy and continue to breed in these new aviaries. And just like the bird houses we had as kids, we love seeing these beautiful birds up close. However we can’t lose sight that these aviaries are an integral part of rescuing this species from the brink of extinction, the ‘alalā can’t call these aviaries home forever. Right now, we can only hear the beautiful and haunting calls of the ‘alalā coming from inside these aviaries, but hopefully that will be soon be changing. With the hard work of the HEBCP staff and our conservation partners, we look forward to the upcoming day when everyone will have the opportunity to listen to the magnificent ‘alalā roaming free in the Hawaiian rainforest.

Thank you to all who contributed to making these ‘alalā aviaries a reality, especially to Elite Contracting LLC for building such great aviaries, and to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and San Diego Zoo Global for funding the construction.