Saving an Iconic Bird from Extinction
Once common throughout the forests of Hawai‘i, the ʻalalā (Hawaiian crow) came dangerously close to extinction in the 1990s, with fewer than 20 birds left in the wild. By 2002, the species was gone from the forests of the Big Island, eliminated by invasive predators, disease, and habitat destruction.
San Diego Zoo Global partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Forestry and Wildlife, and the local Hawaiian community to help the ʻalalā recover. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, teams collected the few ʻalalā left in the wild and moved them into bird sanctuaries, then began restoring the forests and removing invasive species.
Gone But Not Forgotten
With the ʻalalā population so close to zero, intensive human assistance was required—we couldn’t risk losing even one bird. Genetic analysis helped determine which birds should be paired for breeding, based on which ʻalalā were likely to have the highest rates of reproductive success. Animal care experts hand-raised chicks, caring for them around the clock. If a mother ʻalalā couldn’t properly protect her egg, it was taken to an incubator to ensure its survival.
In the next phase of the program, ʻalalā were encouraged to choose their own mates, build their own nests, and rear their own chicks. Once they learned how to be parents, they had to learn how to survive in the wild. The ʻalalā were given opportunities to forage for fruits, berries, and insects, and even received antipredator training. Keepers taught the ʻalalā to recognize and avoid their only native predator, the ‘io (Hawaiian hawk). The birds thrived, practicing survival skills in the safety of the sanctuaries.
A Happy Homecoming
In 2017 and 2018, small groups of ʻalalā were reintroduced into the forests of Hawai‘i—now there are 19 birds flying free, filling the forest with their distinctive calls after 14 years of silence. They’re pairing, raising chicks, chasing off ‘io, and even surviving extreme weather. In the last year, the birds experienced hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. They all survived, and are thriving.
Earlier this year, researchers found the first wild ʻalalā nest in 20 years. Three pairs of birds built nests—a significant milestone in the recovery of the ʻalalā—and one pair even laid eggs. These behaviors indicate that the birds are comfortable and adapting well to life in the wild. With this encouraging success, more groups of ʻalalā are being prepared for release later this year. The total ʻalalā population is now more than 125 birds.
Partnerships are essential for bringing any species back from the brink of extinction. We work with partners and local communities on 6 continents to protect endangered animals and plants. But none of this work is possible without the help of friends like you. Thank you for your continued support.