Something to Crow About

The native Hawaiian ‘alalā is in the wild once more

Contributing Writer Daisy Stewart

Photos courtesy of Bryce Masuda, Daisy Stewart, and Elizabeth Lough

Two ‘alalā  fly

In native Hawaiian culture, ‘alalā are regarded as ‘aumākua, or spirit guardians. ‘Alalā is not just the name of the bird, but it is also a style of chant meant to project one’s voice and a messenger to be heard over the sounds of war. The ‘alalā are very vocal so it’s no surprise where they got their name. Unfortunately, not many people know about these birds, what they sound like, or even what they look like.

“Most of the people I’ve talked to don’t know that there was ever a crow here,” says Cody Kramer, a UH Hilo Environmental Science graduate and research assistant at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center. “You have to go to people who are 50 or 60 years old to get stories about them.”

The ‘alalā are related to the crow, raven, jay, and magpie. However, they are genetically closer to the rook, which is found in Asia and Europe, according to Rachel Kingsley, a guest speaker at the “Third Thursday By the Bay” series put on by Mokupāpapa and Education and Outreach associate for the ‘Alalā Project. While they may be related to other crows, ravens, magpies, jays, and rooks, Masuda says “they’re very unique and different from American crows and ravens.”

These birds primarily eat fruit, insects, and occasionally eggs. No other bird species on the island has a beak strong enough to break into the fruit of hōʻawa, or Kona cheesewood, which has a hard outer shell with the fruit and seeds inside.

A study was done with the hōʻawa fruit and the ‘alalā. Researchers fed the birds the fruit with the seeds, and the birds would later dispel them. Hōʻawa that didn’t pass through the ‘alalā were broken up and dropped on the ground as a control to see what had a better chance of germinating. Of those that were dropped on the ground, none of the seeds germinated. Of those that passed through the ‘alalā, 50 percent of the consumed seeds germinated.

Jacqueline Gaudioso-Levita, an avian biologist and ‘Alalā Recovery Project coordinator, states: “ʻAlalā are integral to the ecology of Hawaiian forests. They were, and are, seed dispersers that helped build the forests of Hawaiʻi. As we take steps to recover the species, those efforts also improve the overall health of the ecosystem and benefit other species as well.”

In 1890, there were many of these birds in their historical range on Hawai'i Island around Kona, Ka`ū, and sometimes Puna. In 1976, there were only 76 birds left in the wild, which rapidly declined to 13 birds in 1992. By 2002, there were no more ‘alalā in the wild. The causes of such rapid decline stem from diseases, specifically toxoplasmosis, avian pox, and avian malaria, as well as from predation by introduced species such as cats, rats, and mongoose, according to Bryce Masuda, Conservation Program Manager overseeing the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, a site for Hawai'i Endangered Bird Conservation Program under San Diego Zoo Global.

San Diego Zoo Global is a non-profit organization, best known for the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari. The organization has many different field programs like the Hawai'i Endangered Bird Conservation Program, where there is a lot of hands-on conservation work.

“There are many partners with a diverse set of backgrounds and knowledge in science and land management that are working together to restore ʻalalā to their native habitat. Without all of this knowledge we would not be able to do the work we are doing,” Kingsley states about the ‘Alalā Project. The Hawai'i Endangered Bird Conservation Program, along with the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Land and Natural Resources, Three Mountain Alliance, U.S. Geological Survey, Hawai'i Volcano National Park, and Kamehameha Schools helped to found the ‘Alalā Project about 25 years ago when the ‘alalā were disappearing in the wild.

According to Masuda, the project started by a process called headstarting, which is when ‘alalā eggs were collected from the wild birds’ nests, then incubated and hatched. The birds would then be hand-raised and hand-fed until they were ready to be released back into the wild.

Unfortunately, the population of wild ‘alalā kept declining, so the project adopted a conservation breeding program. Conservation breeding, or captive breeding, helps to protect the birds from threats, as well as to be able to produce more offspring and hatch as many eggs as possible.

Now representatives from all the groups get together once a month to discuss what’s going on with the ‘alalā and to make plans for future releases. The 2016 release was the first release of the ‘alalā since they went extinct in the wild. They did a soft release, which means that they raised them and brought them to a flight aviary where they could stretch their wings and get accustomed to mosquitoes. They were then moved to the release aviary which got them accustomed to the environment in which they would be released.

After their release, however, three of the five males died. Two were attacked and killed by their natural predator the ‘io, or Hawaiian hawk, and the other was caught in a storm and died of natural causes. Due to these incidents, the remaining two were brought back to reevaluate the release and decide what could be done differently in 2017.

For the 2017 release, they looked at potential new locations and did an analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, or “SWOT” analysis. It was then decided to do the release towards the north in the Pu’u Maka’ala Natural Area Reserve.

They also looked at how they can help protect the birds from ‘io. This began the predator aversion training. Researchers mimicked an ‘io attack and used alarm calls from the ‘alalā that they had recorded during vet visits, which is the only time anyone shows their faces to the birds so as to keep them as wild as possible. They did this few times until the ‘alalā recognized the ‘io as a threat.

They also selected a larger sex socialized cohort of 11, compared to the all-male cohort release in 2016 with only five individuals. They did native fruit recognition trials prior to the release in order to make sure the birds could recognize the fruit they can eat, as well as fitted them with a transmitter and harness so that they can be tracked and monitored.

Thanks to the efforts of everyone working with the ‘Alalā Project, the ‘alalā are back in the wild once more. There are currently 11 in the wild. “The first time you see them, it’s like seeing a celebrity because they’re so endangered,” says Kramer.

Since they’ve been released, the ‘alalā have been spotted doing their natural behaviors such as nest robbing, eating the hōʻawa, and mobbing. So far they have been spotted mobbing two nests, one of which was an ‘apapane nest.

According to Masuda, mobbing doesn’t pose a threat to the other native birds because the ‘alalā don’t do it very often. They have also been observed doing mobbing behavior to chase off ‘io. “You hear a lot of alarm calling,” Kramer describes. “It’ll be three or four ‘alalā chasing after one ‘io. It’s usually the ‘io that’s running away.”

Because of how successful the 2017 release was, another release is planned for fall 2018; however, the month and day haven’t been decided yet. They will be releasing another mixed-sex cohort of roughly the same size back into the wild.

“When you are in the presence of an 'alala, it is a humbling moment,” says Gaudioso-Levita. “Their intelligence and uniqueness is very apparent.” If you think you would like to get involved, you can volunteer with a local conservation organization or check out internship opportunities through Kupu or Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Science. If you would like to stay up to date on the latest ‘alalā news and events, check out https://www.alalaproject.org or you can follow them on Facebook or Instagram (@alalaproject).