When the last pair of alala vanished from the South Kona forest in 2002, scientists gave one of Hawaii’s most threatened native birds the dismal distinction of being extinct in the wild.
Then, in 2016, conservationists began gradually releasing captive-bred alala into the wild in a delicate attempt to reestablish a Hawaiian crow population outside the bounds of an aviary.
Now Hawaii’s native crow is extinct in the wild once again after a five-year effort to reintroduce the clever, black-feathered creature to its natural habitat led researchers to pull the bird back into captivity last December due to concerns over a startling number of deaths. For the first time conservationists say they are looking to release the imperiled bird on Maui, where a leading predator — another native species — does not exist.
Of the 30 birds released at the Big Island’s Puu Makaala Natural Area Reserve since 2016, only five survived.
Some of the birds went missing, their carcasses never recovered. Others died in the throes of a harsh winter storm.
But the most persistent threat to the alala was a fellow native bird: The ‘io, or Hawaiian hawk. At one point last year, several birds perished by the hawk’s serrated beak in a single week.
The hawk — a symbol of Hawaiian royalty — appears to have pegged the crow as a food source, according to Jackie Gaudioso, a wildlife biologist with the Hawaii Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife. And although captive-bred alala are trained to recognize the ‘io as a predator and avoid becoming its next meal, Gaudioso said the number of fatalities caused by the bird of prey increased over time.
“We kind of had this emergency meeting over zoom,” Gaudioso said. “It was very clear that we had to take action and we needed to preserve the knowledge and the skills of the birds that did survive so we could bring those birds back in and they could serve as mentors for future release birds.”
Skills the birds learned in the wild and could pass down to future generations of captive-bred alala may include food foraging or predator avoidance, she said.
Dubbed the endangered species capital of the world, Hawaii is home to hundreds of varieties of threatened plants and animals. Nearly 70% of all endemic Hawaiian bird species have already gone extinct.
Reserves like Puu Makaala are the last frontier for a number of dwindling native bird species that are under attack from habitat loss and invasive predators, such as mongoose, rats, feral cats and disease-carrying mosquitoes.
But in this case, it seems, the native crow, on the brink of extinction, and the native hawk, which has a population of about 3,000 individuals found only on the Big Island, are no longer compatible living freely in the same terrain.
Until recently both of these birds were on the federal list of threatened and endangered species. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removed the ‘io from the list last year, but the agency’s determination that the hawk is no longer at risk of extinction has been criticized as politically motivated.
The partnership of federal and state conservation agencies and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance that guided the delicate series of alala releases over the last several years will no longer consider reintroducing Hawaiian crows into the wild on the Big Island until more data about the Hawaiian hawk’s social behavior and territory size is known.
Instead, the team behind the alala’s recovery is considering releasing the bird on a different Hawaiian island: Maui. This would eliminate the threat of ‘io predation, since the existing population of about 3,000 ‘io reside exclusively on the Big Island.
Maui appears to be the next-best option for alala releases, Gaudioso said, since scientists have found bones there that appear to belong to alala, or a very similar species.
Further identification work is required to determine with greater certainty whether the Hawaiian crow was ever found on Maui, Gaudioso said.
Releasing alala on Maui would only be a short-term solution. And it would likely take several years for conservationists to go through the motions to secure enough community support and environmental approval to do so.
The Big Island remains fundamental to alala’s long-term recovery because it’s the island that still has plentiful enough forest habitat to support the bird, Gaudioso said. It’s also the island where the bird has historically been found.
Of course, keeping the species alive in the wild is just a first step. Alala will ultimately need to learn to forage, mate and nest on their own.
Known for animating the forest with its rambunctious shrieks and cackles, alala are remarkably smart. The bird uses sticks as tools to draw out grubs from tree bark, an impressive foraging skill that eludes nearly all other birds in the crow family.
The bird also helps perpetuate the native forest because it feeds on native plants and fruit and disperses their seeds.
“They really are these living remnants of the past,” Gaudioso said of Hawaii’s native crow. “I think if we lose alala, we’re really losing a major component of place.”
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