Endangered ‘Alalā Crows Released into Local Reserve
Six young ‘Alalā have been released into Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve Hawai‘i Island after being temporarily housed in an aviary. The critically endangered Hawaiian crows included a group of two females and four males. They reportedly showed a natural curiosity for their surroundings upon release.
The ‘Alalā has been extinct in the wild since 2002, preserved only at the Keauhou and Maui Bird Conservation Centers managed by San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program. With more than 125 birds now living at the centers, conservationists are ready to return them to their native forests.
A second group of five ‘Alalā birds including two females and three males is planned for release in mid-October.
In December 2016, a similar reintroduction attempt was halted due to winter storms and predation on the endangered crows by ‘Io (Hawaiian hawk). The renewed effort, which is funded by the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), San Diego Zoo Global, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has addressed the previous challenges by changing the time and site location for release. The birds are also being in groups of males and females, and enhanced predator training to help them better respond to predators.
‘Alalā tend to have high mortality rates when released into the wild due to living in captivity for extended periods of time. Successful conservation programs aim to improve these transitions to the wild for various species, and are considered key tools in reviving threatened and endangered species.
The nēnē, or Hawaiian goose, was returned from the brink of extinction thanks to an intensive breeding program, according to the DLNR. The iconic state bird still requires active management and monitoring. For ‘Alalā, these continued efforts are also essential to the species’ continued recovery.
“The recovery of the ‘Alalā is an excellent example of partners working together to do something that has never been done before.” said Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager for the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program. “Although bringing the ‘Alalā back from the brink of extinction will take a lot of time and perseverance, many people are dedicated to saving this important species.”
Nine of the 2017 release birds were moved to a flight aviary in early 2017, allowing them to acclimate to the sights and sounds of the Hawaiian forest, and to socialize them with two males released in December 2016. They were then transferred to a smaller aviary in the forest two weeks prior to release.
Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve is an area that conservationists of the Three Mountain Alliance and DLNR have worked for decades to preserve, protecting native plants and species. It represents a similar high-elevation habitat once inhabited by ‘Alalā before their numbers began to decline.
‘Alalā are an important part of the life of the Hawaiian forest, as they eat and assist with the dispersal of native plant seeds. The reintroduction of this species, now absent from the forest for more than a decade, is expected to play a key role in the overall recovery of the local ecosystem. ‘Alalā are not only ecologically significant as dispersers of Hawai’i’s native plants, but they also bare cultural significance in Hawaiian culture.
“If not for the strength of partnerships in the ‘Alalā Working Group, we would not be able to move forward as efficiently as we have,” said Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, project coordinator for the ‘Alalā Project.
In addition to the funding agencies and organizations of the ‘Alalā Project, cooperative partners include Kamehameha Schools, Three Mountain Alliance, the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service.
DLNR Chair Suzanne Case commented: “This has been an ongoing learning process for everyone, to get it right for the ‘Alalā to learn the skills they need to survive. The entire project highlights the benefits of protecting habitat and addressing threats such as predators, disease, and invasive species before populations decline so rapidly that recovery becomes even more challenging.”