‘ALALA (Corvus hawaiiensis) (In Hawaiian, ‘alala means cry like a child) CONSERVATION STATUS: 1976 listed under the US Endangered Species Act, IUCN Red List, EW, extinct in the wild. IUCN Justification: The last two known wild individuals of this species disappeared from South Kona in 2002. Some individuals remain in captive breeding facilities and the ‘Alala reintroduction plan is continually being developed and refined. Highly territorial, ‘Alala have often perished by staying within degraded environments of the disappearing dryland and leeward mesic forests.
RANGE: Primarily from 4,000’ – 6,000’ in dry to mesic ‘ohia, or ‘ohia/koa forests on Hualalai and Mauna Loa.
A RARE BIRD: The ‘Alala is the most endangered and rare corvid species on Earth due to habitat loss and fragmentation from logging, predation by introduced mammals such as rats, cats, mongooses, and dogs, introduced avian diseases, and inbreeding depression. Their natural predators are ‘Io (Hawaiian Hawks). When fruit and coffee farmers started shooting ‘Alala in the 1890’s, their populations were already declining. By 1978, just 50 – 150 individuals were left. The sole remaining corvud in the Hawaiian Islands, ‘Alala is a medium sized crow (18 - 20”) with nearly black plumage, a heavy bill, and brown eyes. Through subfossil remains, researchers know there were at least 5 corvud species in Hawai’i, including a large species on Oahu with a curved bill, one with a slender bill on Oahu and Molokai, and another with a hammer head bill. By the 1800’s only one remained, the much smaller ‘Alala. Shown in the painting with Olapa fruit clusters, ‘Alala are opportunistic omnivorous foragers, eating native plants and shrubs, arthropods, mice, and the nestlings of small birds in the forest undergrowth.
They are known for their high level of intelligence and loud musical vocalizations, which are more varied than most any crows. They have amazing communication skills, and are adept at problem solving, tool choice, adaptation, and use. Their straight bill and large forward-looking eyes with sharp close up perception may have evolved to use tools. Hunters have shared with me just how much they miss their ‘Alala in the forest, having taken their abundant sounds for granted in their youth.
REPORT FROM PACIFIC ISLANDS FISH AND WILDLIFE OFFICE ON CONSERVATION EFFORTS:
BRINGING ‘ALALA BACK FROM EXTINCTION
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working in cooperation with the State of Hawai‘i Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW), the Zoological Society of San Diego, U.S. Geological Survey's Biological Resources Division, and private landowners to save and restore the ‘alala. The Zoological Society of San Diego operates captive propagation facilities at the Maui Bird Conservation Center on Maui and at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Big Island at Volcano. From 1993 -1997, 27 juveniles ‘alala were released into the wild. However, due to a variety of factors including predation by the ‘Io and disease, 21 died or disappeared, and the remaining six were taken back into captivity. In 1997, the Service acquired 5,300 acres of land in the South Kona District to establish the Kona Forest Unit of the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. This fenced refuge unit contains a significant amount of ‘alala habitat. Efforts are ongoing to improve habitat quality to safely release captive-reared ‘alala in to the wild.
2017 RELEASE UPDATE: At the time of this writing in 2017, there are about 120 birds in captivity. Five ʻAlala were released at Pu'u Maka'ala on Hawai’i Island in April 2017, however, three died quickly, and the remaining two were brought back into captivity. Further release has been postponed. Scientists working on the ‘Alala have brought in Tom White, a US Fish and Wildlife biologist working with the Puerto Rico Parrot Recovery Program to advise them. He has recommended intensive predator-aversion training, which was a key in the successful reintroduction of the endemic Puerto Rican Parrot to the Rio Abajo Forest where over 100 wild parrots are now thriving. That success took about 40 years. Success with reintroduction of the Nene (Hawaiian Goose) and the California Condor took about 50 years. Much of the birds’ defense against predators is learned, not inherited. The next release will happen at about the 5,500’ level where few ‘Io venture and the forest floor, where ‘Alala forage, is more robust and dense. It has been recommended that 12 birds be released at once to allow them better communication for protection.