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Hawaii Wildlife Center uses hand-felted ‘fuzzy foster parents’ to comfort white terns during their incubator stay

portrait graphic illustration of white bird flying against blank background

Known as the official city bird of Honolulu and one of the last native seabirds in the area, the mano o ku, or white tern (Gygis alba), is a handsome and charismatic bird with bright white feathers and strikingly black eyes.

Rae Okawa, a development coordinator for the Hawaii Wildlife Center, said Oahu is the only island of the main Hawaiian Islands that is home to the terns. However, she explained they are mostly found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Okawa said the already rare young terns are further threatened by cats, dogs and cars that may leave them injured or orphaned.

If a tern chick is found on the ground, Okawa said they don’t necessarily need to be taken to the HWC. “When a healthy chick is found on the ground, we prefer it be returned to its hatch branch and reunited with its parents whenever possible.”

She noted the Hui Manu o Ku program keeps excellent records of where terns are hatching so they can bring the chicks back to the parents. If the chick is sick, injured or if the parents can’t be found, she said the chick is brought to the HWC.

If HWC needs to take the chick in, Okawa explained, it is first brought to the Feathers & Fur Animal Hospital in Kailua for a checkup and treatment. Then, HWC’s volunteers at Oahu Wheels for Wildlife transport the chick to the airport where she said they’re examined for illness or parasites by the Hawaii Department of Wildlife and flown to Kona.

The volunteers at the Big Island branch of the Wheels for Wildlife then pick up the chick from the airport and bring it to the HWC animal hospital. These flights usually take place on a commercial air carrier, but she said sometimes the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary will lend a hand, or a wing, too.

The care the young birds receive at the HWC hospital on the Big Island is detailed in a HWC newsletter. To ensure the chicks don’t get lonely without their parents, they’re given a plush “mama bird” hand-felted by an Instagram follower of the HWC, @littletig2.

The newsletter says these “fuzzy foster parents” comfort the chicks during their stays in the sometimes-crowded incubator.

While the HWC website lists a few cases where injured terns had to stay in rehabilitative care for months, the chicks generally grow up in a few weeks, are given a bath and sent back to Oahu. When they arrive home, the website says they are introduced to the Honolulu Zoo’s soft release program.

portrait graphic illustration of fuzzy white baby bird against a blank background

A spokeswoman in a video released by the HWC said, “We can’t just send them out to sea and wish for the best like we do with other seabirds.”

So, she explained the terns are reacclimated to life among their own species by being placed in a designated soft release tree at the zoo. At the tree, they can see and interact with wild terns and learn how to be wild again themselves.

The project website says at the soft release tree, the terns are free to come and go, which is a typical part of soft release programs following wildlife rehabilitation. While the newsletter says it’s “always exciting” when a bird comes back for a snack, as time goes on, they return less and less to the zoo. Okawa said that’s a good thing.

Terns who haven’t quite figured out how to hunt for themselves yet are fed by volunteers from the Honolulu Zoological Society, the spokeswoman further explained.

Okawa said putting the chicks in the soft-release program is “actually the last step in a multi-step rescue process.”

She emphasized the zoo is still fully involved in keeping the terns safe and healthy by feeding and monitoring them, even though the terns become more and more distant from humans as they reintroduce themselves to a cotillion (the official collective noun for a group of terns.)

The newsletter says “they no longer need the extra help” when they begin to leave the tree. The baby tern, once orphaned, perhaps sick or even injured, who snuggled with a felt foster parent, has grown into an adult seabird who can take care of itself the way wild animals are meant to. •