Update, Dec. 28: Two of the young crows have been brought back into their aviary at Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve, after the other three were found dead over the last week. The birds had been observed doing well since their Dec. 14 release, and had been eating from feeders placed in the area. No cause of death has been determined yet, but necropsy examinations are planned.
"Some level of mortality is to be expected when reintroducing a species back into the wild and we were prepared for that possibility," says John Vetter, a biologist with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. "The initial days of release are always the most difficult stage of any release program, and the level of uncertainty is also highest with the first release cohort. We decided to recapture the remaining birds to ensure their safety while we await the results of the necropsies, so that we can learn, respond, and continue to strive for the long-term success of the ‘alalā."
"The loss of these three birds is difficult for the entire community, including the many people who have cared for these birds since their hatch and have worked steadfastly to prepare for their release," adds Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager of the San Diego Zoo's Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. "Condolences for this loss have come from around the world."
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 this month into Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on the Big 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.
Here's a video of the release, which took place Dec. 14:
"After being released, the ‘alalā quickly adjusted to their new home, and began to search for and find food items in the forest," says Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager of the San Diego Zoo's Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program, in a statement about the release. "Although the birds have now been released, we will continue to monitor them and provide appropriate supplemental food, to ensure they are supported as they encounter challenges."
Endemic to the Big Island, ‘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 dramatically in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The crows were already in decline when coffee and fruit farmers began shooting them in the 1890s, due largely to disease, predation by invasive mammals, and loss of suitable habitat to grazing and logging. Only 50 to 100 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 actually 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 died or disappeared — many succumbing to disease or a natural predator, the Hawaiian hawk — and the survivors were taken back into captivity.
During the ‘alalā's 14-year 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, 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.
The release had been planned for September, but was delayed to allow more time for habitat prep and teaching the young birds about predator evasion. They were moved to a flight aviary in October to help them acclimate to sights and sounds of the forest, and then to a smaller aviary in the forest a week before the release. All five are males between 9 and 11 months old, but more releases are planned, so they shouldn't be alone for long. The plan, of course, is for ‘alalā to eventually breed in the wild again.
"This group of youngsters just happen to be all male," explains Christina Simmons, public relations manager for San Diego Zoo Global. "They were all chicks that hatched this last year about the same time and are ready for release. We do expect to have some females in future release groups."
‘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. They'll likely face plenty of hardship, both from natural and invasive threats, but company is on the way, with another release planned for early next year. And as Masuda tells West Hawaii Today, 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."