It has been one year since 11 critically endangered Alala—Hawaiian crows that were previously extinct in the wild—were successfully reintroduced into the forests of Hawaii. And now, this flock is growing!
On Sept. 24, 2018, researchers from San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program and partners in The Alala Project released five more Alala into the Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on the Big Island of Hawaii. These birds will join the previously released Alala that are already thriving in native forests on the windward slopes of Mauna Loa.
The two females and three males were released from a location within the same reserve. This month, another five birds will be released to make a total of 10 in this cohort, to join the released Alala across the reserve. Prior to these releases, the last wild Alala were seen in South Kona more than 15 years ago.
“Hearing the voices of the Alala and seeing them forage in their native habitat after being gone for so long is an incredible feeling,” said Bryce Masuda, program manager of San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP). “It is a testament to the resiliency of the birds and the dedication of so many incredible partners that we have come so far.”
After the opening of the release aviary doors, it took 53 minutes for the first bird to finally venture outside. All flew except the last one, which strolled out and quickly joined the others already exploring their new home.
The 11 birds released in 2017 have had a challenging year. Their survival skills were tested through multiple storms including Hurricane Lane, the Kilauea and Lower East Rift Zone eruptions and, as always, seasonal weather patterns. As five new birds join them in the forest, their daily routines continue: foraging on native fruits, eating insects from the bark of trees and agilely flying through the ʻohiʻa tree-dominated forest.
“The Hawaiian forest as well as the Alala are very resillient,” explained Alison Greggor, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research associate from San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. “They have survived really well over this past year, and it will be exciting to see this continue.”
Earlier this year, the 10 birds scheduled for release in 2018 were moved to the same flight aviary that housed the 2017 birds. This allowed them to acclimate to the sights and sounds of the Hawaiian forest. Each cohort is transferred to a smaller release aviary two weeks prior to their release. All of the released birds are tracked and fed routinely by a HEBCP field team. These daily efforts will continue for these and future release birds for as long as needed.
In conjunction with our partners, San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program reared the ‘Alala at its centers on Hawaii Island and on Maui. In 2016, a new strategy was initiated to return the birds to the forest. Biologists set out to incorporate the birdsʻ personalities and group dynamics along with detailed habitat selection and an innovative approach to training the birds how to avoid predators.
“This strategy is a three-pronged approach; groups are mixed-sex and comprised of birds that affiliate well together,” said Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, The Alala Project coordinator. “The release sites are quantitatively chosen by experts familiar with the species and habitat. Realistic anti-predator training is used to evoke fear of their natural predator, the ‘Io”, or Hawaiian hawk.
The Alala are highly social birds that live in groups and form complex hierarchies. All of this is taken into account when planning a reintroduction. “The numbers of birds released will depend on how many show encouraging behaviors during wild food training and anti-predator training, as well as pass the health exams performed by wildlife veterinarians,” said Greggor.
On the day of the birds’ release, an oli, or chant, was offered by members of the Alala Working Group, honoring the beginning of another chapter of the species’ recovery. Last April, each of these birds was given a Hawaiian name by local school students and the community. Ulu (to grow or inspire), Kuʻokoʻa (freedom), Maikaʻiloa (good fortune), Aumoamoa (to care for) and Kaleo (the voice) are the names of the birds in the first group released this year. “These names hold meaning for the individual birds,” said Rachel Kingsley, education and outreach associate for The Alala Project. “Having the students and community working together provides a way for connections to be formed with each other, as well as to the conservation work we are doing.”
"Recovering threatened and endangered species is bigger than any one community or agency,” said Michelle Bogardus, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service geographic team leader for Maui Nui and Hawaii Island. “It takes everyone working together, and this release is great example of that. Together we can ensure a healthy future for not only the birds, but the forest ecosystem as a whole.”