The people of Hawaii’s Big Island may soon find themselves face to face with a creature few of them have ever had an opportunity to see before: the Hawaiian Crow.
Hawaiian Crows, also known as ʻAlalā, have existed on Big Island for millennia, but they haven’t lived in their native habitats for the past few decades. The species, which were common until about a century ago, experienced decades of declines due to invasive predators, diseases, and persecution by farmers, who feared the fruit-eating corvids would consume their crops. The last wild Hawaiian Crows died out in 2002.
But now the ʻAlalā is due for a return. Later this year, six captive-bred fledglings—descended from a handful of crows rescued for captive breeding before their wild counterparts disappeared—will be released into the predator-free Puʻu Makaʻala Natural Area Reserve. It will be the culmination of years of work to save the species and an especially intense past few months.
“This has been one of our most hectic weeks yet,” says Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, coordinator for the `Alalā Restoration Project, a collaboration between the State of Hawaii, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and San Diego Zoo Global. “At the end of the day, everyone on the project is completely exhausted.”
To prepare for the release, Gaudioso-Levita and other conservationists on the team have been criss-crossing Big Island, gathering permits for the reintroduction, talking to local landowners who might soon find the birds on their land, and giving presentaions to schools and community groups to build up public support for birds younger generations of Hawaiians have never seen in the wild.
The team has also just completed building the first two aviaries at Puʻu Makaʻala. Last week, following intensive health checks, conservationists transported the six fledglings to the first aviary, a large enclosure where they will spend the next six weeks building their flight muscles in preparation for their release into the wild. A second, smaller aviary, situated closer to the forest, will allow them to get acclimated to their new home prior to their scheduled release on November 17.
Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager for San Diego Zoo Global, called the impending release “an exciting time for the people of Hawaii.” The Crows, he says, were not only ecologically significant as dispersers of Hawaii’s native plants, but they also continue to hold value in Hawaiian culture. “For a number of families, they’re considered to be ʻaumakua, which is a family guardian, if you will,” Masuda says. "The ʻAlalā is a part of the identity of this place.”
This cultural role will play an important part in the release, as the ʻAlalā are expected to eventually disperse beyond the confines of the reserve. Public support outside these confines is vital, so the project has spent the past few years working with private landowners and managers to ensure that the birds remain safe. For example, staffers might need permission to enter land to ensure that the birds remain free of predators that could threaten their survival.
Beyond those relationships, some pretty advanced technology will also enable the team to consistently monitor the crows. Each released ʻAlalā will be equipped with what Gaudioso-Levita calls “a tiny birdy backpack” containing GPS and VHF transmitters and tracking devices. The miniaturized hardware, which weighs just 18 grams, will be wrapped in Kevlar and Vectran, the materials used in bulletproof vests and space suits.
The transmitters will allow the project members to monitor how well the birds survive in post-release, as well as to learn more about how they behave in the wild, something that hasn’t been closely studied since the 1990s. “We’ll be able to find them to do discreet observations, so we can better understand how they’re doing,” Masuda says. That data will help to provide clues as to their diets, habitat use, and, in general, what they need to survive and thrive in the wild as more captive-bred birds are released. The next six fledglings are scheduled for realease early next year, with more to follow.
The big question that remains is how well the birds will survive in the wild. Previous attempts at releasing captive-bred birds back in the 1990s failed because the crows either caught diseases or were picked off by their natural predators, the Hawaiian Hawk, also known as the ‘Io. Gaudioso-Levita says the area around Puʻu Makaʻala has the lowest densities of ‘Io on the island, so “the threat of aerial predators is going to be much, much lower this time.”
If the released ʻAlalā do as well as they are expected to, project members anticipate that the birds will start to breed in their natural setting for the first time in decades. But that won’t happen immediately: The fledglings will need about another two years to reach sexual maturity. After that, the monogamous birds might start pairing off.
Masuda, one of the researchers who recently uncovered the fact that Hawaiian Crows use tools to forage for food—one of just two crow species known to do so—says he’s excited to learn how the birds behave in the wild after generations in captivity. “There’s still so much in general to be learned about ʻAlalā, and about so many other species around the world,” he says. “That’s one more reason why this release is so significant.”