How Extreme Weather Tests Facilities Housing the Last of a Species

Natural disasters fueled by climate change imperil critically endangered species under human care. Breeding centers must be more ready than ever to swing into action in an emergency.
A brown bird perched in green leaves, looking up.
‘Akikiki at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Foto: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

Last August, the deadliest U.S. wildfires in a century raged across Maui. Sparked by severe drought, strong winds from Hurricane Dora, and downed powerlines, the fires killed more than 100 people and displaced thousands. They also ignited the 46-acre property of the Maui Bird Conservation Center, which safeguards critically endangered Hawaiian forest birds. Incredibly, caretakers carrying fire extinguishers and a garden hose contained the blazes until firefighters arrived. “Everything happened so quickly,” says Rachel Kingsley, an outreach associate with the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project. “It just shows … how quickly everything can be lost and how everything can change.”

Extreme weather and natural disasters pose a threat not only to wild birds but also to their captive counterparts. Accredited zoos and breeding centers around the world have long had emergency protocols to deal with hurricanes, earthquakes, fire, and more. But the stakes are especially high at facilities that safeguard critically endangered species—in other words, some of the last individuals of their kind.

“Everything has a massive contingency plan,” says Greg Vicino, who oversees animal care at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s breeding facilities, a leading organization that supports wildlife conservation across the globe. These plans, for example, may outline evacuation routes, provide animal carriers for easy transport, and specify the most genetically-valuable individuals to prioritize should a catastrophe force painful decisions.

Climate change is, of course, raising the threat level, as warmer temperatures fuel new and more complex disaster risks for endangered species under human care. Already, biologists are witnessing natural disasters that force emergency protocols into play more often, Vicino says. In some cases, they must prepare for new scenarios entirely. Audubon spoke with several facilities managed by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance to understand how they think about and prepare for every eventuality. 

Sheltering for Stronger Storms

Strong typhoons in the last decade have forced biologists on the Mariana Islands to ready for the worst. In 2002, after Typhoon Pongsona ravaged the islands, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency rebuilt homes out of cinder blocks, and one now serves as a rearing center for young Åga, a highly endangered crow whose continued existence depends on human care. That shelter came in handy in 2018 with the arrival of Typhoon Yutu—the strongest ever recorded to hit the island and the second strongest to hit the United States or its territories.  

As Yutu loomed, field crews scrambled to capture recently released Åga—also called Mariana Crows—that the crew worried wouldn’t survive their first typhoon. And they quickly moved captive juvenile Åga indoors in small pet carriers. The birds remained there for more than three weeks while the team repaired damaged outdoor aviaries where the captive crows usually lived.

Despite their response, storm damage still set conservation efforts back, says Phil Hannon, a biologist with the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. His team works to boost the crow population, which declined from 1,300 birds in the 1980s to only about 220 recently. Due to introduced predators, habitat loss, and poor breeding success, only about 60 percent of wild-raised young make it to adulthood. To help the struggling population, in 2016, biologists began collecting eggs from nests, hand rearing and raising them behind crow costumes, and only releasing the youngsters at a less vulnerable age of 18 to 24 months. However, the typhoon prevented egg collection that season; repairing the damaged aviaries absorbed most of the crew’s time, and few, if any, wild Åga nested in the hurricane’s wake. 

The Mariana Islands generally experience a typhoon each year, but strong storms are becoming more common with climate change. Since Yutu, the risk is always in the back of Hannon’s mind. “I check the typhoon tracking websites to see if anything's developing pretty constantly during typhoon season,” he says.

He’s also made improvements, hoping to minimize the time that Åga must shelter inside, where they can’t fly or practice skills for their eventual release to the wild. Strong cables better secure updated aviaries that can flex in the wind. And they built larger carriers for the birds so if they remain inside for an extended period again, they can perch comfortably. The crew also refined the timing for their storm preparation—boarding windows and shoring up structures early, but waiting to move the birds inside until the last possible second. The efforts already proved helpful: In May 2023, typhoon Mawar forced the young crows to remain inside again, but only for a week. With each storm, the Åga crew learns and adapts.

Carefully Hedging Bets

The Maui Bird Conservation Center was thankfully unharmed by this summer’s wildfires, but the near-miss rattled biologists involved in efforts to safeguard the ‘Akikiki, a honeycreeper housed there. In the wild, it lives only on the nearby island of Kaua‘i and climate change has already decimated its population: Mosquitoes that carry fatal avian malaria are killing the small population, which lives in high-elevation areas that were once too chilly to harbor the insects. The malaria threat was so grave that in summer 2023, biologists collected all eggs found in the few wild nests and brought them to the Maui breeding center to incubate. By that July, just before the fires broke out, an estimated five birds remained in the wild, and fewer than six dozen lived in captivity.

“If that building had burned down, that would have been a big, big whammy for all our conservation efforts—I mean years and years of trying to save these species,” says Julia Diegmann, an outreach specialist for the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project. “It would have been a disaster.”

To hedge against this kind of catastrophe, conservationists had an insurance policy: While the majority of the captive ‘Akikiki lived at the Maui site, 17 were housed in a different facility on Hawai‘i Island. Spreading out the birds reduces the chances of any disaster or disease causing a single, crushing blow.

Still, biologists are limited in how far they can cast a safety net. If the captive birds are ever to survive in the wild on Kaua‘i again, they’ll need to learn local environmental cues to help them forage and breed. “You could build concrete bunkers in the middle of Omaha, Nebraska, and hope that nothing bad happened,” Vicino says. “But that doesn't do anything for building their experience.” Besides needing the local environment, moving an insurance population of ‘Akikiki outside the archipelago would also be out of the question, Vicino says, because ‘Akikiki hold cultural importance to native Hawaiians.

Even on the other Hawaiian Islands, biologists are careful to mimic the birds’ specific Kaua‘i forest environment. Camouflaged netting and other materials make the birds feel like they are in a forest, rather than at the edge of a field at the facility, and misters recreate the average rainfall levels of their habitat. As biologists prepare to begin an ambitious project to reduce the mosquito population on Kaua‘i, the hope is that one day their native habitat will be hospitable to ‘Akikiki once again.

Expecting the Unexpected

In August 2023, Hurricane Hilary hit Southern California as a tropical storm, dumping a year’s worth of rain in some areas. On San Clemente Island, 41 miles offshore, a team charged with protecting the San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike—an endangered bird whose population now hovers around 22 wild pairs and about 60 captive individuals—shuttled birds inside ahead of the cyclone.

But their 20-page protocol had nothing to say about Hurricane Hillary. Though the island can experience high winds and rain in December, a summer tropical storm was a first for the shrike project. Tropical storms in Southern California are extremely rare—one hadn’t hit in 84 years.

While the storm didn’t damage the facility, the wind broke panels off some of the aviaries where birds shelter. Since then, the shrike team has added hurricane preparation to its emergency protocols—especially so they can stockpile more reserve supplies if needed. Dangerous wind or sea conditions can delay weekly deliveries of food and supplies, postponing repairs and preventing the arrival of mice and crickets for their captive flock. “There’s no Home Depot out here, so you are limited by whatever resources you already have,” says Jaelean Carrero, the shrike conservation program manager at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

Unpredictability due to climate change is also making it more challenging to undertake conservation efforts. The loggerhead shrike team relies on rainfall forecasts months in advance to plan a breeding strategy. If anticipated rainfall doesn’t materialize, released juveniles in the wild may struggle to find enough food to survive. But if their forecast is too conservative, it’s a missed opportunity to boost the tiny population.

Overall, being flexible and developing a diverse “menu” of plans will be critical to ensure the shrikes’ survival as the climate warms, says Melissa Booker, a U.S. Navy wildlife biologist who helps manage the San Clemente shrike population. Natural disasters are only the start.