Hawaiian Crows Return From Extinction in Wild

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Reclaiming their forest habitats has not been easy for ‘alalā, also known as Hawaiian crows. (Photo: Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo Global)

After living in Hawaii for thousands of years, the Hawaiian crow — or ‘alalā — vanished from the wild in 2002. It fell victim to a combination of threats, including habitat loss, disease and introduced predators like cats, rats and mongooses.

Now, thanks to years of work by conservationists, a small group of these birds are back in the forests where their ancestors evolved. They were released in late 2017 at Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on the Island of Hawaii, displaying a healthy amount of caution as they emerged from the aviary where they had been temporarily housed. After a few minutes, however, their natural curiosity took over.

This video shows some of the crows in the aviary just before their release:

A total of 11 ‘alalā were released in two stages: first two females and four males in September 2017, then another two females and three males a few weeks later.

And while this revival is still fragile, it seems to be going well so far: In January 2018, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) announced that all 11 ‘alalā are "thriving" in the wild more than three months after their release.

This is the latest step in a long-running campaign to help the ‘alalā reclaim its ancestral habitat. Conservationists tried releasing five of the birds in December 2016, but had to recollect two after three were found dead. Those deaths were attributed to winter storms, as well as predation by the Hawaiian hawk, a natural predator.

After that happened, conservationists addressed these threats by changing the release timing to avoid winter storms, changing the release site, releasing a social group of both males and females, and improving the "antipredator training program" to teach the captive-bred birds how to deal with predators.

"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," said Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program, in a statement about the 2017 releases.

‘Alalā land

ohia forest, Hawaii
‘Ōhi‘a forests, like this one on the Island of Hawaii, are native habitat for ‘alalā. (Photo: Brandon B/Shutterstock)

Endemic to the Island of Hawaii, ‘alalā mainly inhabited upland ‘ōhi‘a forests on Mauna Loa and Hualalai, eating native fruits as well as insects, mice and sometimes nestlings of small birds. The species was once abundant, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but that changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The crows' initial decline was driven largely by disease, invasive predators and loss of suitable habitat — and it certainly didn't help when coffee and fruit farmers began shooting them in the 1890s. Only 50 to 100 ‘alalā were believed to exist by the 1980s, and the last two vanished from their territory in South Kona in 2002.

While that meant the ‘alalā was extinct in the wild, the species avoided full-blown extinction thanks to a captive-breeding program that had begun years earlier. Scientists released 27 of those captive-bred birds in the 1990s, hoping to help the remaining wild population hold on, but that didn't turn out very well. All but six of those crows died or disappeared — many succumbing to disease, or to predators like the Hawaiian hawk — and the survivors were taken back into captivity.

During the ‘alalā's long absence from the wild, scientists have been trying to make sure the birds face better odds the next time they're released. The captive population now features more than 115 individuals at Keauhou and Maui Bird Conservation Centers, managed by San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG), and enough safe habitat has been restored that scientists decided now is the time.

"Decades of intensive management by the Three Mountain Alliance watershed partnership have led to the preservation of some of the most intact native-dominated wet and mesic forest on windward Hawai‘i Island, known as Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve,” says Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, project coordinator of the ‘Alalā Project. The area around Puʻu Makaʻala also has the lowest densities of Hawaiian hawks on the island, reducing the threat of aerial predators.

Something to crow about

Hawaiian crows released into the wild
Three captive-bred ‘alalā mingle in their aviary before the latest release. (Photo: Hawaii DLNR)

In early 2017, several ‘alalā were relocated from the conservation centers to a flight aviary. This was meant to help them acclimate to the sights and sounds of a Hawaiian forest, and to socialize them with the two males who survived the 2016 release. Next, they were transferred to a smaller aviary in the forest, where they stayed for two weeks until the big moment finally arrived. The first six were released in late September, joined by the second group about three weeks later.

The birds are all wearing radio transmitters, which let researchers track them daily. And although they're living freely in the wild, they remain under tight surveillance: Virtually everything they do is closely monitored and recorded, according to the DLNR, from their movements and flights to what they eat and where they roost.

So far, so good. The crows have been foraging more native fruits, for example, and relying less on temporary feeding stations. And one of the most promising signs, says SDZG researcher Alison Gregor, is the ‘alalās' interactions with Hawaiian hawks, also known as ‘io. Researchers recently watched four ‘alalā successfully chase away an ‘io, suggesting the antipredator training might be paying off — although Gregor says the birds can likely learn much more in the wild than in captivity.

"At this stage we can't be certain that the training is the crucial piece of the puzzle, but we like to hope that it helped," she says. "Actually, being in the wild around predators, observing other forest birds and interactions with predators, is the best training they can possibly get."

A wing and a prayer

Hawaiian crows, or ‘alalā
Two of the recently released ‘alalā explore their new home in 2017. (Photo: Hawaii DLNR/SDZG)

‘Alalā were an important part of the forests where they once lived, eating native fruit and dispersing the seeds of Hawaiian plants. Their return is expected to play a key role in the overall recovery of the ecosystem, and if it goes smoothly, provide a rare bright spot for an island chain known as the bird extinction capital of the world.

Reviving their species is a big responsibility for these young ‘alalā, but scientists are confident that it's possible — and that trying again is prudent. "This has been an ongoing learning process for everyone, to get it right for the ‘alalā to learn the skills they need to survive," says Suzanne Case, chair of the Hawaii DLNR. "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."

Plenty of hardship lies ahead, both from natural and invasive threats, but more releases are planned if this one works out. And as Masuda told West Hawaii Today in 2016, these birds deserve as many chances as we can give them.

"There will be challenges for sure; they're in a new environment," he says. "But they are where they're supposed to be. They're in a forest, and that's their home."