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Strictly for the birds

Alum's ornithological passions mean a better future for endangered Hawaiian birds
By Colleen Dixon

Blake Jones (’04) uses a technique called candling to look for fertility in a Nene egg. The Nene is Hawaii’s state bird.

Blake Jones (’04) uses a technique called candling to look for fertility in a Nene egg. The Nene is Hawaii’s state bird.

Tell Blake Jones ('04) that his work is "strictly for the birds" and he is liable to agree wholeheartedly. He spends the majority of his time wrestling with life-or-death issues facing endangered birds. Jones can tell exactly what caused his interest in avian science to take flight -- Charles Ziegenfus' three-hour ornithology labs, spent tramping around Harrisonburg. "The weekly lab started early in the morning," Jones says. "We went to different places to find and observe the various avifauna of Harrisonburg. That's when I first developed a true appreciation for birds." The biology major also had an internship in Hawaii with the San Diego Zoo conservation research department. "After that internship, I decided to dedicate the rest of my academic and professional career to the recovery of endangered birds," says Jones.

That dedication has taken Jones, a native of Chester, back to Hawaii, where he works with the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program to establish self-sustaining populations of critically endangered native birds.

Endangered bird capital

Hawaii is the endangered bird capital of the world, according to Jones, with more than half of the native bird species having gone extinct since the arrival of humans approximately 1,600 years ago. "Of the species that are left," Jones says, "many are endangered due to loss of habitat, diseases like avian pox and avian malaria and the introduction of rats and mongooses. In 1994 the HEBCP began collecting eggs and using artificial incubation and hand rearing to start a captive flock. By controlling factors such as environment, nutrition and predation, the HEBCP is able to produce healthy chicks at a higher survivability rate than is found in the wild. By releasing these birds into restored and protected habitat, we can foster self-sustaining populations of endangered birds."

All of Jones' aviculture and captive propagation experience has come through his work with the HEBCP. He names some of the successes of the program: "We've successfully developed procedures for hatching and raising 14 different endemic Hawaiian bird species. We have raised to adulthood more than 800 individual birds. Almost 200 Puaiohi (Kauai Thrush) have been released in the Alakai Swamp Wilderness Preserve, and captive raised endangered birds have been documented breeding with wild birds and successfully raising progeny." A new aspect of Jones' work is helping to identify causes of embryonic death in 'Alala -- the Hawaiian crow now extinct in the wild -- using molecular, genetic and histological techniques. "We have increased the population of 'Alala from fewer than 15 to 60 birds," says Jones.

Avian medical challenges

Extensive experience working as a veterinary technician has been a useful skill for Jones in Hawaii. "The chicks are the hardest cases because of their tiny size. Giving subcutaneous fluids and medications to something the size of a Peanut M&M can be very nerve-racking," explains Jones. "Another notable case was a 5-day-old Kauai Thrush with a severe open fracture. We had to actually remove a portion of the bone and use specially designed splints. The bird made a full recovery and is today flying free in the Alakai Swamp Wilderness Preserve on Kauai."

Education and advice

Educating the public about the plight of Hawaii's critically endangered birds is important to Jones. He is active in speaking to community groups, tourists, school groups and college students.

What advice does Jones have for students majoring in biology? "Don't be shy. If something interests you, find out as much as you can about it. Ask questions, read research papers, apply for jobs and internships, talk to people and volunteer. Do all you can," advises Jones.

To learn more about the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program, visit: http://cres.sandiegozoo.org/projects/sp_hawaii_birds.html.

About the Author
Madison magazine staff writer Colleen Dixon, is also a freelance writer and editor and has served as an officer in the Navy Reserve for more than 17 years.