On Thursday morning we made our way to Volcanoes National Park to meet with Lea Ka’aha’aina, the education and outreach coordinator for the `Alalā Project under the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife. Lea spoke to us about the conservation and captive breeding program of the `Alalā, a species of crow (Corvus hawaiiensis) endemic to Hawai’i, and then led us on a hike through a native wet forest near the Pu’u Maka’ala Natural Area Reserve and the `Alalā reintroduction site.
The `Alalā is a member of the Corvus genus, which includes crows, ravens and rooks, and is most closely related to the Asian rook. Members of the family Corvidae are known for high intelligence, adaptability, problem solving, and complex communication. Native species like the `Alalā arrived in Hawaii by one of three routes; carried by the winds, drifting in on the waves and ocean currents, or by winged immigration. Based on evidence garnered from fossil and skeletal remains, the `Alalā is thought to have existed in the Hawaiian Islands for millions of years. Historically, the `Alalā was found in dry to semi-dry forest between 1,000 and 8,200 feet elevation and their calls were among the loudest in the forest. Their calls were so loud and distinct that the word `Alalā has been associated with several meanings including a style of chant used to increase the ability to project ones voice, a messenger in battle who calls out the chief’s orders, and the cry of a baby. As other members of genus Corvus, the `Alalā are omnivorous and their diet includes over 30 species of fruits, eggs and nestlings from other birds. They may also consume nectar, flowers and scavenge dead animals. Due to the fact that they primarily consume forest fruits, they are extremely important for seed dispersal of many of the large fruiting native plants.
The `Alalā are considered sacred in Hawaiian culture and are regarded by some as ‘aumakua’, or family guardians. Unfortunately, the `Alalā are now one of the world’s most threatened bird species and in 1994 only 20 birds remained in the wild. By 2002, the species became extinct in the wild. Luckily, in the 1970s researchers had noticed a sharp decline in the `Alalā population and the first birds were taken in to human care to start a captive breeding program.
The main threats that `Alalā face in the wild include habitat loss, disease and predators. Development, agriculture and ranching are responsible for much of the habitat loss. `Alalā life history is tightly tied to the existence of the understory for protection from avian predators (the ‘io or Hawaiian hawk). When this habitat was converted to ranch land, the `Alalā lost their protective cover and the fruit species upon which they rely for food. Diseases such as avian malaria and toxoplasmosis from introduced vectors such as mosquitos and feral cats also impacted the population. Finally, introduced and invasive predators such as rats, cats and mongoose preyed on eggs and young chicks and contributed to their decline in the wild.
Fortunately, now the `Alalā are not left to their own devices. The `Alalā recovery team consists of representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hawai’i Division of Forestry and Wildlife, U.S. Geological Survey, Kamehameha Schools, McCandless Ranch, the Hawai’i Endangered Bird Conservation Program and the Zoological Society of San Diego. Starting with just 9 founding birds, the `Alalā captive breeding program has successfully hatched over 150 `Alalā chicks since 1993 and there are currently plans to release two cohorts of six birds each into Pu’u Maka’ala Natural Area Reserve. The reintroduction plan includes predator aversion training, practice foraging for native fruits and VHF and GPS tags to monitor behavior and help to detect if a bird sick or injured. The released birds will continue to be fed native fruits at designated feeding stations to supplement their diet in the wild.
The successful reintroduction hinges upon maintenance of the native canopy and understory, food availability, invasive predator control and the ability of the `Alalā to raise their own young in the wild. Other concerns include a genetic bottleneck arising from the small founder population and an emerging disease called rapid Ōhi’a death that threatens the important Ōhi’a tree which is a crucial part of the forest ecosystem. Nevertheless, researchers remain hopeful that the reintroduced birds will thrive and their call may once again be heard again in the wild.
To follow the reintroduction in September, 2016 and for more information on the captive breeding program please see the links and resources provided below.
Seeking the Sacred Raven – a book for more information on the captive breeding program
Project website – http://www.alalaproject.org
Hear calls of the `Alalā https://www.fws.gov/pacific/ecoservices/endangered/recovery/Alala_Voices.html
Follow the project on instagram @alalaproject
For more information on rapid Ōhi’a death visit www.rapidohiadeath.org