Could Hawai‘i’s Endangered Native Crow Be Saved From Extinction?
Saving an endangered species can be inspiring, as seen through the comeback stories of the nēnē and Hawaiian monk seals. Yet conservationists have spent decades working to re-establish Hawai‘i’s last remaining crow—the ‘alalā—in the wild. Last year’s crushing setback underscored the challenges facing those working to save these species from extinction.
photo: courtesy of san diego zoo global
On a typical sunny day last November, I boarded a small commuter plane for Hilo, jammed my carry-on bag in the small overhead space above my small window seat, and hoped no one would occupy the small spot next to me. But the flight was full, and a big man wedged himself beside me, one beefy leg angled into the aisle. He wore board shorts, slippers and a T-shirt with the word “Kalapana” on it. He’d pulled his dark hair streaked with gray threads back into a ponytail, accentuating his strong Polynesian nose.
“May I ask you a question?” The words escaped my lips without much forethought. In my hands, I held the book Seeking the Sacred Raven, advance reading for that week’s special events celebrating the imminent release of five captive-bred ‘alalā into the wild.
He turned, giving me his full face.
“Any chance you’re familiar with the bird known as ‘alalā?” I asked.
“I saw one once,” he said. There are few people in the world who have seen the ‘alalā, a dark sooty brown crow with a heavy black bill, fewer still who have seen them in the wild. “Really?” I asked, a tone of incredulity perhaps ringing in my voice.
This ‘alalā’s blue eyes indicate that it’s a juvenile. Their eyes darken as they age.
photo: courtesy of san diego zoo global
“In a dead ‘ōhi‘a tree,” he continued. “I have a photo.” He reached for his pocket before remembering the photo was taken with an old phone he no longer had. It was the bird’s distinct call that captured his attention, unlike anything else in the forest, he said. He was working with a crew of other foresters when they heard it, sometime in the early 2000s.
“You realize you may have seen the very last surviving ‘alalā in the wild, right?” I asked.
His eyes widened. “I didn’t realize,” he said.
Often, when conservation makes mainstream media, it’s good news—nēnē sightings on O‘ahu’s North Shore, the birth of a Hawaiian monk seal in Waikīkī, and the removal of those leviathans hunted long ago, the humpback whale, from the federal endangered species list. In a way, scientists have made saving endangered species seem easy. But last December, we learned it’s not so easy to save an endangered species, even one as intelligent as the tool-using ‘alalā. After decades of successful captive breeding, years of restoring a suitable habitat and months of community outreach, five ‘alalā were released into the wild again.
Hawaiian monk seal mom and pup, Kaimana and Rocky, this August.
Photo: David Croxford
It was a brisk and overcast Wednesday, about halfway up the windward slope of Mauna Loa, the sky further muted by a canopy of ‘ōhi‘a and koa trees in the wet forest of Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve. At 1:15 in the afternoon, an aluminum mesh panel of a temporary aviary slid back. Within a minute, a hatch-year bird named by Hawai‘i grade schoolers as Kia‘ikūmokuhāli‘i appeared on the lip of the opening. A few seconds later, he hopped onto a tree branch outside the hack tower and, for the first time since 2002, this rare species of crow, Corvus hawaiiensis, flew among a cornucopia of fruiting trees—pilo, ‘ōlapa, māmaki and more.
It’s not every day a species extinct in the wild gets reintroduced to its home range. The California condor comes to mind, the black-footed ferret and the Mexican gray wolf, too.
Unfortunately, Kia‘ikūmokuhāli‘i’s freedom didn’t last long. Within a week, he and Mana‘olana, the fourth ‘alalā to depart the hack tower, were caught and returned to captivity after three other released birds were found dead, one of starvation and two killed by the ‘io, or Hawaiian hawk. And just like that the forest was silenced again of the squawks, screams, growls and croaks unique to Hawai‘i’s endemic crow.
—Biologist Michelle Bogardus
“I don’t think any of us ever thought releasing ‘alalā was going to be easy,” Michelle Bogardus told me. She’s a biologist representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the ‘Alalā Working Group, a diverse team with members from Hawai‘i’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife, San Diego Zoo Global, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Three Mountain Alliance and Kamehameha Schools, among others. Their goal: Return the species to the wild. “I’m not sure we were prepared to lose the three birds we did in such a short time span, but we all knew there would be some major setbacks along the way. This isn’t a one-year or one-release process. This is going to take a while.” That’s where adaptive management comes into play.
Of all the flora and fauna protected by the Endangered Species Act, nearly one-third resides in Hawai‘i. There are two reasons we harbor so many endangered species: One, the size of our island state; and two, our isolation. According to David Quammen, author of The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, “Islands are where species go to die.” It’s a dire statement, yes, but it has merit. The very nature of islands—finite geography—constrains population size. What’s more, Hawai‘i’s physical isolation led to a ridiculously high rate of endemism—species found here and nowhere else in the world. When species discovered Hawai‘i hundreds of thousands and millions of years ago, they encountered a new environment. To survive, they had to adapt. In doing so, they evolved into entirely new species, cramming a high biodiversity of life in limited numbers in a limited space. Then, about a thousand years ago, humans stepped ashore in Hawai‘i, and the real challenges began. Once you start studying endangered species in Hawai‘i, whether they be feathered or finned, similar refrains echo. It’s like remixing the same song over and over again. The challenges are habitat degradation, non-native predators, disease and, in cases like the ‘alalā, with small founder populations, possible genetic bottlenecks. Sometimes, too, lack of knowledge.
Take nēnē, Hawai‘i’s state bird, descendants of Canada geese. After arriving in Hawai‘i approximately 500,000 years ago, they lost much of the webbing between their toes, allowing them to better maneuver the rough lava terrain. But a few other geese morphed in extreme ways, one veering toward gigantism at four-and-a-half times the weight of nēnē; another with a tortoiselike bill with toothed notches; and another, likely blind, with a wide, flat bill that may have used a strong sense of smell to find food. All were flightless and all went extinct about the time Polynesians settled in the Islands.
Nēnē were wiped off all but Hawai‘i Island by the 1950s and seemed destined for the same fate as Hawai‘i’s prehistoric geese until a captive breeding program got busy and successfully hatched goslings. Releases started in 1960, continuing until the mid-1990s. “There were lots of ups and downs,” Joey Mello told me. He got involved with nēnē recovery in 1986 and is currently the state East Hawai‘i wildlife manager. They’d continually release birds but the population kept settling at 500 individuals. Sure, there were predators—rats, cats and mongooses—but “we finally accepted the fact that we had probably been releasing nēnē in the wrong place,” Mello said. The captive birds were being released at the same high elevations where the last remaining wild birds retreated for survival, but that doesn’t mean the higher altitudes were their preferred habitat. “Nēnē probably nested in the lowlands,” Mello said. “I mean, what winter nesting goose would want to have a gosling in 34-degree temperatures in rainy country?”
—East Hawai‘i wildlife manager Joey Mello
So, in the mid-1990s, efforts turned to habitat restoration and predator control. The last of the captive-reared goslings were released on mongoose-free Kaua‘i at lowland elevations. Today, half the estimated 3,000 nēnē exist on Kaua‘i.
Hawai‘i’s state bird claims one of the greatest conservation stories ever told, yet it didn’t come easily. It didn’t come quickly. The lessons learned have been applied elsewhere. On Maui, the critically endangered kiwikiu, a small honeycreeper with a distinctive parrotlike beak, is currently restricted to a single population of 500 individuals on Haleakalā’s windward side; however, their historical range included the leeward slopes, long denuded from years of logging and ranching. Three years ago, the Maui Endangered Forest Bird Project kicked off a monumental effort to re-establish the dry forest, removing the invasive predators and out-planting 43,000 seedlings to prep for the upcoming translocation of kiwikiu to their home habitat.
Only 500 kiwikiu remain in the wild, on Haleakalā’s windward side.
photo: courtesy of maui forest bird recovery project, zach pezzillo
Similar to the flightless ducks, Hawaiian monk seals were eliminated from the main Hawaiian Islands some time ago. However, a population survived in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, what is now part of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Little was known about their life history when Thea Johanos packed up in 1982 for a summer on the island of Lisianski, 1,000 miles northwest of Honolulu. “We didn’t know then how they foraged,” she told me. Johanos is a research wildlife biologist with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. At first, they attached dive recorders to the ankles of seals. “Then, we partnered with the National Geographic Society and put CritterCams on the backs of seals, and we saw that they were bottom foragers.” Eventually, one seal was discovered diving to depths of 1,650 feet and another recorded 30 straight days at sea before hauling out on land.
The seals’ remote habitat made recovery difficult. “When I first started, we just had radios,” Johanos said. “Three times a week, we radioed to say we were still alive. But sometimes the radio would go out, and the Coast Guard would fly over to see if there was somebody on the ground.” Nowadays, field staff communicate via satellite phones and satellite emails, but there’s no internet. No posting selfies to Facebook.
Thirty percent of the monk seals alive today can be traced to human efforts—disentangling seals caught in marine debris, reuniting separated moms and pups, and moving weaned pups from areas of low survival to areas of greater survival. But, even with technological improvements in the field, if an animal is sick or injured at remote Lisianski, there’s little a field biologist can do.
“If a seal is in need of help—say, an animal is entangled on the reef, and you don’t have the capacity to save it,” Johanos said, “or if there’s a seal that needs rehabilitation and it can’t last until the ship comes [at the end of the season]—then our field camp people have to watch it wither away and die. It’s emotionally taxing for people, and sometimes people burn out.”
PHOTOs: COURTESY OF SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL
Remote fieldwork can be emotionally tough, but it can also be physically tough. Andre Raine heads the Kaua‘i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project, a relatively new effort compared to these others, that got started in 2006. The first challenge was simply finding the three species of ground-nesting seabirds—Hawaiian petrel, band-rumped storm petrel and Newell’s shearwater—on Kaua‘i’s knife-ridged mountaintops. Raine took over the program in 2011. “The first time I flew in a helicopter over the areas where the birds nest,” he said, “I looked at those huge drop-offs and extremely convoluted terrain covered in dense vegetation, I was like, ‘Wow.’”
These remnant mountaintop colonies are the seabirds’ last hold on survival. Unfortunately, their predators often find them easier than do their saviors, the biologists. Every nesting season, Raine installs cameras outside burrows, and every nesting season, he’s captured video evidence of rats raiding nests and cats killing birds.
Non-native mammalian predators raise the brunt of conservationists’ ire. Rats. Cats. Dogs. Pigs. Goats. Mongooses. Because Hawai‘i’s native species didn’t evolve with these critters, they don’t have defenses for them. But it’s a tiny non-native predator that’s currently doing the most disconcerting damage to Hawai‘i’s prized honeycreepers, one of the best examples of adaptive radiation in the world. Some five million years ago, about the time the island of Kaua‘i emerged above the sea’s surface, a finchlike species arrived in Hawai‘i and eventually evolved, most dramatically in bill shape and size, into more than 50 other species. Mosquitoes hitched a ride to Hawai‘i aboard whaling ships in the early 1800s. A single bite from an avian-malaria-carrying mosquito can kill a honeycreeper. Today, generally, wherever mosquitoes exist, Hawaiian honeycreepers do not. This is especially problematic on Kaua‘i, where the island peaks at 5,243 feet. That’s only about 750 feet above what’s long been considered the “mosquito line.” But with the Earth’s warming temperatures, that line’s moving up.
Ironically, the predator that sent the ‘Alalā Working Group back to the drawing board last December was a natural one, the endangered ‘io.
“We’ve learned more about where resident ‘io are across the landscape,” said Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, project coordinator of the ‘Alalā Project, about the work that’s been done this year. Last year’s loss of three ‘alalā hasn’t slowed the effort to get them back into the wild, although this year’s release site will be located in a spot more than four miles away where surveys show fewer ‘io reside. Too, the new location offers a more diverse understory, giving the ‘alalā good protection.
This time, the adapted plan also includes a planned release before winter’s rainy weather sets in. (As we went to press in late September, six ‘alalā were released into Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve.) A mix of sexes was included with two of the 11 birds being Kia‘ikūmokuhāli‘i and Mana‘olana. “We hope these two will be like mentor birds to the rest of the group,” Gaudioso-Levita said.
The effort to save the fruit-eating ‘alalā is a sizable one but important to Gaudioso-Levita, citing the ‘alalā’s role as seed dispersers. In fact, ‘alalā are the only extant birds with a bill strong enough to crack open the seed of the hō‘awa, a small native tree with fruits similar to walnuts. “Their diet facilitates forest building and the perpetuation of fruiting plants,” she said. “They can be seen as a keystone species for Hawaiian ecosystems.” In other words, ‘alalā help healthy native forests thrive.
—Jackie Gaudioso-Levita,‘alalā project coordinator
This group of people working with endangered species share some characteristics in common: positivity, determination, innovation. Raine encapsulated this when he said to me, “You can’t just throw your hands up and walk away.”
I heard something similar in Gaudioso-Levita’s voice when she said, “There’s this historical aspect, too. ‘Alalā are basically the living legacy of endemic corvids of the Hawaiian Islands. It’s important to keep the species alive for future generations.”
Then, there’s the meaning behind the names of the two surviving ‘alalā. Kia‘ikūmokuhāli‘i’s names translates to English as “guardian of the forest,” and “Mana‘olana’s translates to “hope.”
Somehow, both of those seem fitting, a little prescient, even; and I like to think the names portend a good outcome for the ‘alalā. Maybe one day soon, my forester friend will hear an ‘alalā in the wild again.
With the aid of San Diego Zoo Global, a more rigorous predator aversion training program is being implemented to teach the ‘alalā to fear ‘io. That may include placing an ‘io within visual sight of an ‘alalā and playing a recorded ‘alalā distress call to trigger the young ‘alalā’s reactionary nature. The training may also include a silhouette of a swooping ‘io. The selection of birds released may well depend on how each responds to the simulated threats.