Once a year high up in Olinda on Maui you can look behind the curtain at one of the most poignantly heroic endeavors in our islands.

At the Maui Bird Conservation Center a small group of dedicated young men and women are challenging the terrible cycle of mass extinction that began when the first human stepped out of the first canoe onto Hawaiian shores. Our state is ground zero for a massive extinction wave, that scientists call the sixth great extinction.

According to paleontologists we are all living through a period of mass extinction that parallels the period that killed off the dinosaurs — only it’s not a rogue asteroid but rather the careless finger of humanity on the trigger. And this catastrophe is hitting Hawaii earlier and harder than most of the U.S. — more than 25 percent of the endangered species in America are endemic to Hawaii.

This grim reality is what makes the humbly named Maui Bird Conservation Center take on such grand symbolic value. A project of the world renowned San Diego Zoo, the Maui Bird Conservation Center’s mission is to create protected breeding populations of unique Hawaiian birds that are on the edge of extinction.

The Center was an important part of the successful recovery effort that led to the comeback of the Nene. And following success with the Nene, the Center (along with its sister group on the Big Island) is working with four more populations of highly endangered birds.

One of these species, the Alala or native Hawaiian Crow, is poised to bounce back, but its potential success has been sidetracked, and possibly even derailed by the federal budget politics of the moment.

Alala crows San Diego Zoo Maui Bird center

Feeding time for baby Alala crows at the San Diego Zoo.

Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo

While the Alala are called crows they are actually closer relatives to ravens. And like ravens they are large and beautiful birds with the charisma that helps threatened species survive. Jet black like their mainland relatives, they have slightly fuzzier heads than the North American raven we are more familiar with. Their eyes snap with intelligence, their brains boosted by sophisticated nervous systems that govern many basic motor functions leaving their brains free for thought and memory. They make more than 140 different sounds each with their own meaning, a language that is different and more musical than the harsh caw of their mainland cousins.

On one of the two cold rainy November day a year they allow the public in, the birds showed off a large number of these calls fluffing and chattering away at me and a handful of others that had come to visit them. Our guide explained that they were curious about us – and that rare visits like this were stimulating to the birds. It’s clear this tour was not part of an attraction, and indeed according to Michelle Smith, senior research staff at the Center, it won’t ever be one either, “since some of the birds need seclusion to breed.”

The Alala is extinct in the wild and was down to less than 20 individuals in the 1990s. Much of the Center’s work is in breeding the birds to get the population back up. That’s a lot harder than it sounds. The birds have to be carefully hand fed while chicks so as not to imprint them on their human caretakers.

The Center’s Conservation Program Director, Bryce Masuda, speaks with a quiet local-style confidence that draws us in. He explains, “we use puppets to feed the chicks after their eyes open and this simulates a parent for the hatchlings.”

The puppets are awkward things, black sleeves with plastic raven heads, and metal attachments. They look like extras for the Muppets Show. Bryce shows us how these work with some comic effect, explaining “It’s necessary to limit human contact if they are ever to return to the wild.”

Somehow the fact that these dedicated people can never let the chicks love them back makes the whole enterprise more wistfully brave. It’s is exactly the kind of sacrifice St. Francis would appreciate, and I think it is a sign of the kind of sacrifice the rest of us will have to make in order to manage the mass extinction we are passing through.

Today thanks to the efforts of people like Bryce Masuda and Michelle Smith, the Alala population is now back up to 113. At this level the crows could begin returning to the Big Island to reestablish wild breeding populations. The catch is that the land must be pristine natural forest with a rich understory, for the birds to be able to survive.

Fortunately there is one site on the Big Island that is ready to go – it’s been fenced off for several years allowing the native forest to recover to the point where the crows could make it there.  And two more sites are currently being prepared with the co-operation of hunters and private landowners.

Alala crow Maui bird conservation center

The Alala crow is making a comeback thanks to the work of the Maui Bird Conservation Center.

Courtesy: San Diego Zoo

Like so many worthy projects the Center is struggling for money to fulfill its mission. While state, private and some federal money is in place, there is an unexpected $400,000 shortfall in the expected federal contribution.

The fed’s failure to meet the needed amount to conduct the reintroduction is a result of sequestration rules. Sequestration is the product of governance by theatrical gesture and it is one part Obama Administration and four parts Republican House. Since it began in 2013 it has rustily ground away at the federal budget, killing countless research projects, thousands of jobs, and programs.

Sequestration increasingly feels like the weather, like there is nothing anyone can do about it, yet $ 400,000 seems like a small price to pay for a chance to reverse the extinction of the Alala. If everyone in our state (including Larry Ellison) pitched in 32 cents these birds would be back in the wild in 2015!

If a hotel chain like Starwood or Marriot adopted this cause, they could raise it on daily small change donations in a kiosk display in their lobby. Hawaiian Airlines is already contributing to the work of the Center and their support could help point the way for other local companies.

So what can be done? Certainly one really wealthy person could step in and give $400,000, and maybe they will, after all it would be a proud accomplishment to bring a whole species back from the brink of extinction.

But it might be better for the collective soul of Hawaii if all of us pitch in. It could be a state grant in aid, and honestly if anyone in this state deserves one it is the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Maybe there should also be a direct crowd funded appeal — a Kickstarter campaign, or something similar.

In order to have the best chance to make it in the wild the birds cannot be too old because after a few years they lose the curiosity and edge that lets them thrive in the wild.

Michelle Smith stands in the rain in front of the cages at the Center and says: “The ideal would be one breeding pair per enclosure, but with Sequestration …” Her hand stabs out at the pens.

Looking up through the rain there are at least four birds with their heads all cocked at different angles all looking through their screen at the receding tour group. Do these birds dream about flying through an open limitless sky? Do they regret that their one and only time to be alive will pass behind double screened windows?

One Alala stares back at me eyes glittering like the obsidian of Pele’s tears. I cannot guess at his thoughts.


Video link to the birds!



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