Remembering Dr. Arthur Crane Risser, Part III


Editor's note: This is the third and final part of our series on Dr. Arthur Crane Risser. Previous installments can be found in Watchbird issues 37-1 and36-4.

In his 17 years as the San Diego Zoo's general manager, followed by three years as director of Animal Collections for both parks, until his retirement in 2006, Art Risser had far more to concern him than the bird collection. He certainly continued to play a pivotal role in aviculture. However, his focus shifted from day-to-day management of the zoo's birds to aviculture in the service of international conservation.

He became increasingly involved in the Zoological Society's programs with the People's Republic of China. Of course, the exchanges of animals with Chinese zoos resulted not only in the aforementioned genetic refreshment of U.S. pheasant bloodlines, as well as founders for the now flourishing American populations of Red-crowned Cranes, but a wide variety of mammals as well. The presence of Sichuan Takins, Chinese Gray Gorals, Tufted Deer, and Francois Langurs in American zoos is the result of San Diego's overtures. Art's style and charm served the Zoological Society well in China. And his diplomacy is credited by his colleagues involved with the Giant Panda Conservation Foundation as being a crucial component in the agreements by which Pandas can now be seen in San Diego, Memphis, Atlanta and Washington D.C., with U.S.-born cubs joining the Chinese captive population. Under David Rimlinger, ornithological and avicultural research in China continues, including fieldwork with tragopans and Chinese Monals (Bell, 1995).

The Zoological Society of San Diego's international conservation programs have long focused on island endemics. During Art's tenure, several crucial and now very promising projects were initiated. Alan Lieberman, who commenced work at the San Diego Zoo in 1973, and served as Assistant Curator to Art, then succeeded him, was, with his wife, Cyndi Kuehler, in charge of the Society's Hawaiian Endangered Bird Conservation Program (Warden, 2006) from 1993 until 2000. He continues to oversee it, along with a variety of other programs, in his capacity as director of field programs for the society. In a tribute at Art's memorial service, Alan attributed the continued existence of the Hawaiian Crow or 'Alala (Corvus hawaiiensis), to Art's foresight in funding and supporting this work (Kuehler & Lieberman, 1994). Techniques developed and refined at the Avian Propagation Center were applied to rearing young crows taken from the last wild nests, initially to augment the wild population, then to create an in situ captive population of more than 50 birds (from a low of around a dozen in 1993). Since 2002, this species has existed only in captivity. Other critically endangered Hawaiian passerines have benefited profoundly from this program. Since its discovery in 1891, the Puaiohi, or Small Kaua' i Thrush (Myadestes palmeri) has always been very rare, and at least since the 1970's has numbered in the low hundreds. Eggs were collected in 1996 and 1997. The resulting chicks produced more than 200 captive-bred offspring, and more than 100 have been returned to the wild (Lindholm, 2008, Warden, 2006). Very little meaningful aviculture had been conducted with Hawaii's Honeycreepers before the establishment of this conservation program. A number of species have been since bred in captivity, in particular the Palila {Loxoides bailleui), a finch-like species adapted to eating poisonous mamane seeds. It is estimated that it now only occupies less than 10 percent of its original range on the Big Island of Hawaii, with a total population of fewer than 5,000. A captive breeding program for the Palila was established in 1996, and 18 of the resulting offspring were released from 2003 through 2006. It was confirmed that some of these birds had reproduced in the wild in 2004 and 2005 (Warden, 2006). In recent years, AFA has assisted in supporting this work (Warden, 2006).

At the same time, the Zoological Society's efforts snatched another island's passerine from the brink of extinction. The San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus mearnsi), confined to the California Channel Island of that name, was found to number no more than 20 in the early 1990s. As Loggerhead Shrikes have never been a common avicultural subject, experiments were first conducted with birds from the California mainland (L. l. gambeli). Eggs of this subspecies were collected from the wild and hatched at the Avian Propagation Center (Keuhler, 1991), where an optimal handrearing protocol was determined. Six chicks and four eggs (transported in millet) were then collected on San...



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