In just two months, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will release a dozen captive-bred Hawaiian crows, or 'alalā, into the rainforests of the Big Island. The reintroduction will mark the first time the birds have set claw or wing inside their native habitat since 2002, the year the last known wild pair of 'alalā disappeared into the highland mists.
It’s a little strange to think of a crow as being rare, so ubiquitous are these black birds elsewhere in the United States, but the 'alalā (rhymes with “ahaha”) is actually one of the most endangered birds on earth. Just 114 'alalā currently exist, all of them guarded closely by biologists associated with a breeding program run by the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.
Crows are known for being highly intelligent (like, the tool-using kind of smart), fond of nearly every food source, and pretty damn difficult to disperse. So what ecological insult has so thoroughly ruffled the feathers of the Hawaiian species? Oh, there are so many.
For starters, some of the crow’s favorite meals are the nuts and berries of the rainforest’s understory, but over the centuries, coffee farms, fruit orchards, and logging concessions uprooted those low-lying plants. Exotic species, including feral cattle, sheep, and goats, trampled and ate what vegetation remained. And because 'alalā are extremely vocal animals—with a vocabulary full of croaks, screams, and Michael Jackson yows—hunters used to shoot the birds on sight before the crows could alert other animals, like tasty, invasive hogs, to the hunters’ presence.
Exotic rats and Asian mongooses also attacked the birds’ chicks, while native Hawaiian hawks (called 'io, a species that is itself near threatened) hunted adult 'alalā. When mosquitoes came to the islands in 1826, they brought diseases like avian flu and pox with them, and feral cats introduced Toxoplasma gondii, bacteria that can cause the birds to develop lesions and sometimes die. (The cats themselves, of course, also preyed on 'alalā.)
In short, through a series of introductions and habitat modifications, the 'alalā’s world changed far too quickly for the bird to adapt.
Fortunately, the crow’s plight did not go unnoticed. The state of Hawaii began taking in sick and injured birds in 1958 in the hopes of starting a captive-bred population. This proved difficult, and the effort limped along for decades while wild populations continued to crash. But even if government biologists were hip to the situation, the general public wasn’t always on board.
The 'alalā, after all, is Hawaii’s largest remaining forest bird—the sole survivor of the islands’ five crow species. It must have seemed impossible that this once-common bird could disappear.
“It was very difficult to convince people of the problem back in the 1970s, when the population was in rapid decline,” says Paul Banko, a wildlife biologist who’s been working to save endangered Hawaiian birds since he was a teenager. Now in his 60s, Banko does so professionally with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center. According to Banko, people started to come around once the species was declared extinct in the wild in 2002. Funny how the e-word tends to cut through the noise.
From 1993 to 1997, 27 juvenile 'alalā were released into the wild by scientists who hoped to jump-start a new population. Unfortunately, the new kids couldn’t hack it. Twenty-one of the birds died or disappeared over the release period, with hawks and disease being the prime suspects in the young crows’ demise. Biologists caught the remaining birds and whisked them back to captivity in order to salvage the genetic diversity that would otherwise be lost in the failed effort.
This November, after nearly 15 years of silence, 'alalā screams will once again ring out through the Hawaiian forest. “It’s extremely exciting to be at this point right now,” says Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager for the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Masuda and his colleagues at San Diego Zoo Global have been tirelessly preparing for the release since 2014, not only by keeping the birds alive and coaxing them to keep reproducing, but by raising the chicks by hand—or through the use of bird-like hand puppets, as it were.
A heap of work has also gone into preparing a parcel of the Pu'u Maka'ala Natural Area Reserve for the birds’ reception. This entailed setting traps for mongooses and rats and constructing fences to keep out grazing machines like cattle and goats. The conservationists are also building a small, temporary aviary that will house the birds while they acclimate and bulk up their flight muscles.
After several weeks in their avian halfway house, Masuda will throw open the doors and let the crows venture out into the world at their leisure. Oh, and should they have trouble finding food on their own, the crows can always stop back at the facility for an easy meal of nutrient-packed bird pellets.
The mama-bird scientists are trying to plan the smoothest transition possible, but how the release will go is anyone’s guess. That’s why they will continue to keep close tabs on their flock with lightweight VHS and GPS transmitters.
Whatever the fate of this pioneering population, it probably won’t happen overnight. “The harm to 'alalā and their forest habitat has occurred over centuries, and recovery strategies should take the long view,” Banko says.
So, aloha, crows! Whattya say—can you hold on just a little longer this time?
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