Endangered Hawaiian Crows Survive First Few Weeks in Native Hawai‘i Island Forests

Conservationists are monitoring the native birds after last year’s crushing setbacks.
Endangered Hawaiian crows
Photo: Courtesy of San Diego Zoo Global


So far, so good. After nearly 15 years of absence, Hawai‘i’s endangered crow, the ‘alalā, is squawking it up again in the native forests of Hawai‘i Island.


That’s what Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, project coordinator with the ‘Alalā Project, told me on Nov. 1 about 11 ‘alalā released over the past five weeks into an area of Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on the windward slope of Mauna Loa. That’s a significantly better start than last year’s effort that saw three of the five released birds dead within a week and the other two returned to captivity.


“The birds have been seen foraging on native fruits such as kāwaʻu, ʻōhelo and ‘ōlapa,” Gaudioso-Levita said. “They’ve also been seen stripping bark off ʻōhiʻa to get the insects underneath.”


These visual reports come from a monitoring team deployed in the forest to assess the birds’ health. Members locate the birds each day using signals from the small VHS transmitters that were attached to all the birds before their release. Each ‘alalā’s foraging range is different; however, some have ventured up to 2,300 feet from their release aviary where supplemental food is still being provided. It’s expected the birds will disperse farther to explore forest resources and form social groups. ‘Alalā create long-term pair bonds. They are known to be sexually mature at 2 to 3 years of age, and since all of the released birds hatched in 2016, some courtship behaviors could be witnessed as early as next year when Gaudioso-Levita expects to release even more birds from the conservation breeding program.


“Hearing ‘alalā in the forest is amazing,” she said. “They have such loud and strong voices. It’s this totally new voice on the landscape and I always wonder how the other [species of] birds are reacting to it.” Click here to hear some of the varied voices of the ‘alalā.


Some specific calls bode well, Gaudioso-Levita reported, including contact calling, in which a bird uses a specific call to communicate with another bird that it can’t see through the forest’s dense understory; and territorial calling, in which a bird rises to higher points of the forest canopy and makes a distinct call consistent with efforts to claim territory. Records from the 1990s and earlier peg the ‘alalā’s median home range as 1,186 acres. That will likely vary depending on resources and population density. But the point is clear: ‘Alalā like their space.


The big question on many people’s minds, however, is about another of Hawai‘i’s endangered native birds—the ‘io, or Hawaiian hawk. It was responsible for the deaths of at least two of the released birds last year.


“There have been no sightings of ‘io around the release aviary or the immediate vicinity,” Gaudioso-Levita said. “All the ‘alalā are in good, healthy condition.”


The 11 birds were released into two mixed-sex groups. Two of this year’s released birds are survivors from last year’s release—Kia‘ikūmokuhāli‘i, whose name translates as “Guardian of the Forest,” and Mana‘olana, whose name translates to “Hope.” The two, both males, have been noted filling a bit of a leadership role, likely because they have some experience living in the forest, which is part of the reason they were split between the two groups. Another factor went into the makeup of each release group: Their close social affiliations prior to release to encourage the creation of breeding pairs.


For now, as the names of Kia‘ikūmokuhāli‘i and Mana‘olana hint, the future of the ‘alalā is guardedly hopeful.


Read more about ‘alalā in the November issue of HONOLULU Magazine.