Conservation

A Year Later, It's Take Two for the Hawaiian Crow's Return to the Wild

After three birds didn't survive a 2016 reintroduction attempt, the ʻAlalā Project revamped its strategies to make this year's release a success.

With crossed fingers, caretakers backed out of the Hawaiian foliage last year after five hand-raised Hawaiian crows, or ʻAlalā, fluttered out of an aviary and into their native forest. The species had been extinct in the wild since 2002, and this was the ʻAlalā Project’s defining moment: Would these five birds be able to establish a new population?

They were not. Within a month, three members of the cohort died—two from hawk attacks and one from unnamed environmental stressors. Efforts to save the wild ʻAlalā population date back to the 1970s, and the project is the most recent attempt to achieve establish a new population. After the first three deaths, though, the researchers quickly terminated the introduction attempt and brought the two survivors back into captivity.

Now, a little more than a year later, the team has tried again, and a new group of ʻAlalā have ventured into the Hawaiian wilderness. The project released 11 crows—two of which were last year's survivors—in the past couple months. A group of six was released into the Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on the big island of Hawaii on September 26, and another batch of five entered the forest in a slightly different location on October 11. With more than twice as many birds venturing into their native habitat than last time, the researchers are optimistic that this new crop will thrive. Since the last year's introduction, the team overhauled its reintroduction strategy—especially the methods for acclimating ʻAlalā to predators—and believe the bird's are much better prepared this time around. 

The first loss served as a painful reality check. “Our team had been working very hard, for months and years even, to raise these birds—from being laid as an egg to hatching out, and then being released into the wild,” says Bryce Masuda, a San Diego Zoo Global conservation program manager who works on the project. “It was really difficult for all of us.” At the same time, “the outcomes were also a learning experience,” says Jackie Gaudioso Levita, the project coordinator for the ʻAlalā Project.

For one, this time the team made sure the birds would stick together in the wild. For almost nine months, the researchers observed each crow’s behavior before and after feeding, taking note of who was pushy, who begged, and who got to the feed bowl last. Dinner time manners indicate social hierarchies for ʻAlalā, so the team parsed the two groups based on which individuals were most likely to get along.

Then training for the wild really began. The number one priority was teaching the ʻAlalā to recognize and avoid the ‘Io, a native Hawaiian hawk. Though the team taught the crows to dodge their natural predator before the 2016 release, this year's batch received what Masuda calls “a suite of stimuli” meant to “get the ʻAlalā riled up” during ‘Io attacks.

The system the team used imitates the natural process of events when the hawks hunt. First, the birds heard playbacks of ‘Io hunting calls; then, they saw a taxidermied version of their foe soar overhead. Recordings of ʻAlalā warning cries were next broadcast through speakers, and for the finale, a live ‘Io in an adjacent cage flapped its wings. Levita and her team tested the drill on older, breeding crows first to make sure they squawked and took notice of the faux danger.

During all of the sorting and training, the team also scoped out drop-off locations within Pu‘u Maka‘ala using a new tactic often used by business strategists. Called SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat) analysis, the method helped the researchers weigh factors like ‘Io scarcity, native fruit abundance, and accessibility for daily research monitoring.

All these efforts culminated in a delicate introduction for the birds. First, the crows moved to a pseudo forest environment—an aviary within the Pu’u Maka‘ala—until they settled down. Then, when the doors were finally flung open, each ʻAlalā wandered out on its own time, explained Masuda. Some zipped out immediately; others lingered in the comforts of home for hours.

Now the team waits. Until the birds' foraging habits fully kick in, San Diego Zoo employees will supply them with extra food and monitor their weight using feeders equipped with small scales. So far, though, the ʻAlalā are fending for themselves fairly well. They strip bark from trees to get at insects and find native berries to snack on—a process that's important for indigenous fruiting plants, which could use the dispersal boost from crows scattering their seeds.

When the year of observation ends, the birds should be completely independent and ideally will have established a baseline population in Pu’u Maka‘ala. Levita and her team plan to continue breeding in captivity and introducing younger batches of ʻAlalā into the forest with their relatives, eventually building a flock that can boost their numbers on their own. And seeing as the group of six from September have already out-survived the 2016 cohort, the team has reason to be hopeful.

Locals are also rooting for the project's success. ʻAlalā represent ancestral guardians in Hawaiian culture, and their presence or calls signify warnings of future misfortunes. Since the ʻAlalā Project's creation, team members have given presentations at community centers and schools to update the region's residents on the bird’s progress. And when they announced the three deaths last year, people showed up in droves to learn what happened and how the project planned to move forward. With the latest round of releases, the locals are even more invested—they voted online to give each of the 11 ʻAlalā a native Hawaiian name. This, Levita says, shows that the birds are just as integral to “the cultural fabric of the Hawaiian islands” as they are to the ecosystem they belong. 

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