MAC Project – Beyond the Sign in the Tropics
Nearly 7,000 miles away, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there is a small chain of islands called the Mariana Islands. At less than 45 square miles, Saipan is much smaller than even the city of Wichita, but it is the largest island in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). On this tiny island though, a big conservation story is playing out. Since 2004, the Mariana Avifauna Conservation (MAC) project has been working to protect the native forest birds of the Mariana Islands from introduced predators and habitat loss. The project is a partnership between Pacific Bird Conservation, US Fish and Wildlife, and the CNMI Division of Fish and Wildlife. Pacific Bird Conservation is a non-profit organization that was founded by retired AZA zoo curators as a way to continue their conservation work after they retired from their respective zoos. Sedgwick County Zoo has been participating in the project since 2011, and this year, I was able to participate for the first time.
The MAC project was started to “provide the avifauna of the Mariana archipelago with the best possible chances for long-term survival, with the objectives of preserving, maintaining, and establishing self-sustaining populations of native birds secure from the threat of the brown tree- snake” (Mariana Conservation Program, n.d.). To accomplish this, the project has 3 main focuses: translocation of birds to predator-free islands, education in the CNMI and in the mainland US, and establishing an assurance population in zoos. At Sedgwick County Zoo, we house the Bridled White-eye, the Golden White-eye, and the Mariana Fruit Dove. These birds live in the Tropics building, but also in the off-exhibit Avian Propagation Facility where we have breeding pairs. We have successfully bred all three species here at the zoo. The translocation takes place every year in the spring and is run by AZA accredited zoo and aquarium staff from around the country. While on the island, MAC staff will present several educational programs to local schools and at community events. In April of this year, I traveled to Saipan to participate in the translocation work. For 2017, we were targeting two species, the Rufous Fantail and the Mariana Fruit Dove. Our goals were to move 50 fantails and 24 doves from Saipan to Guguan.
The translocation work is broken down into two parts: trapping the birds in the field and keeping the birds in our care in the “Bird Room” before the translocation occurs. The trapping is accomplished by mist nets. These finely woven nets are designed for catching birds while in flight. The net is made of a very lightweight material that the birds get tangled in, but doesn’t harm them. After scouting out a location where our target species are actively moving and foraging, we set up several arrays of nets to maximize our potential for catching birds. Net teams then spend 12 hours a day in the field while the nets are open. The nets are checked about every 15 minutes to reduce the amount of time a bird will spend in the net, thereby reducing stress from the netting process. The birds are carefully removed from the net, which is a highly skilled process. Each team member has to be trained on removing birds from the net and must be “checked off” before they can remove birds on their own. I have had some practice at this before since we use mist nets to conduct population surveys in the Tropics at the Zoo each winter. After removal from the net, the birds are placed in a transport crate and set in a cool area before being transported back to the “Bird Room”. The fantails are given water and some live flies in the transport crate as they have very high metabolisms and need to eat rather often. The doves will be fed when they arrive at the “Bird Room”.
Although being in the field for 12 hours a day is physically tiring, the true hard work of the project occurs in the “Bird Room”. Transitioning wild-caught birds to a temporary human care setting is not easy. The MAC team experts have fine-tuned the process, which reduces stress on the birds. The fantails are provided with fresh, live insects four times a day. These birds are classified as flycatchers, meaning they only eat live insects that they catch while flying. So, how do you feed a tiny 7 gram bird that only eats flying insects? You catch a lot of flies! At each of the four feedings, an individual fantail receives about 20 flies. So, when we had the room full of birds, we were feeding out about 4,800 flies a day! The doves have to be tube fed because it is too hard to transition them to eating on their own in the 2 weeks that they are in the “Bird Room”. So, three times a day, each dove is removed from its holding box and fed a formula via syringe. Each bird is weighed every day as well to make sure they are gaining or maintaining their weight.
Besides feeding the birds and monitoring their weights, each bird is also given a full veterinary exam before the translocation to ensure they are healthy enough to make the transition. A fecal sample is collected every day as well. These samples are analyzed to study the amount of stress hormones present which helps inform us on the welfare of the birds while they are in our care. We also monitor the birds’ behavior. If any bird isn’t maintaining weight or doesn’t seem to be thriving, it is taken back to the location where it was trapped and is released.
Once all of the birds have been trapped and have been given a clean bill of health, they are loaded back into the transport crates to make the journey by boat to their new island home. This year, the birds were released on the island of Guguan, an island farther north in the archipelago that has adequate habitat and food sources for the birds. MAC staff and staff from CNMI Division of Fish and Wildlife accompany the birds to their new home. CNMI Division of Fish and Wildlife staff will stay on the island for a few weeks to survey the island’s wildlife, while the MAC team returns to Saipan for a little rest before the long trip home to the mainland. This is only the third year that MAC project birds have been released on Guguan and it is the first year for fantails and fruit doves to be released there. In previous years, the birds were released onto the island of Sarigan. Population surveys there, conducted by CNMI DFW, have shown population estimates of all species to have increased since the releases. In the case of the Bridled White-eye, they estimate that from the initial 100 birds that were released, there is now a population of about 9,000!
Being able to participate in the MAC project has been one of the most rewarding things I have done in my zoo career. To be able to affect real change in a wild population of birds is one reason I chose to work at a zoo. To be able to share the story with you, the community of Sedgwick County Zoo, is another reason why I work here. Every time you visit the Zoo, buy a membership, or round-up your total in the Gift Shop, you are contributing to the conservation and preservation of animals and their habitats around the globe. Thank you for your continued support of the work we do!
By Anne Heitman, Senior Keeper, Tropic Birds
Mariana Conservation Program MAC. (n.d.). Retrieved May 24, 2017.