Mariana Islands Bird Species Recovery Center Hard Hit by Typhoon
San Diego Zoo Global’s Mariana Islands Bird Species Recovery Center aviaries were severely damaged by Typhoon Mangkhut, which moved through the region Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. Animal care staff sheltered in the center, located on Rota, bringing in all of the critically endangered aga birds that are housed at the facility.
“The facility buildings weathered the storm well, but the same cannot be said for the aviaries,” said Susan Farabaugh, Ph.D., associate director of Recovery Ecology, San Diego Zoo Global. “Our release aviary, located on the north side of the island, was least damaged—but the housing aviaries located at the facility on the south side were badly damaged, including two smaller aviaries that were completely destroyed. The forest near the facility was also quite altered, but the forest on the north side was mainly intact after the storm, and we will be able to proceed with our planned releases there.”
The eye of the storm crossed the island, with winds blowing at more than 110 mph. On-island staff, communicating with San Diego-based employees via limited internet, shared photos of the area before and after the typhoon hit. Images of the aviaries show mesh ripped and twisted, doors missing and only the remnants of the overall structure surviving. Habitat on the south side of the island was also severely impacted, and conservationists are concerned about the bird population living in the region.
“The breeding season had just begun before the storm hit,” said Sarah Faegre, research associate in Recovery Ecology for San Diego Zoo Global and manager of the University of Washington aga field monitoring crew. “I am sure that all nests—and there were quite a few out there with nestlings—are lost.”
The aga, or Mariana crow, is endemic to the islands of Rota and Guam in the Mariana Islands. Extirpated from Guam by the invasive brown tree snake, the aga now survives only on the 33-square-mile island of Rota. Here the habitat remains snake-free, but the aga population, estimated at only 130 individuals, continues to decline. Nest success and survival of juvenile aga is low, but with help, it may be possible to rescue the species from extinction.
In the fall of 2016, a collaborative effort including conservationists from San Diego Zoo Global began a rear-and-release project to boost the reproductive success of wild aga. Eggs were taken from a small proportion of wild nests during the beginning of the aga’s nine-month breeding season in fall of 2016 and 2017, allowing the birds time to renest. These eggs were artificially incubated and chicks were hand-reared, then prepared for release. There are currently 25 aga in this conservation program, and 10 are due to be released later this month.