Captive-bred Native Hawaiian crows, or alala, that have successfully been released over the years into forests at Puu Makaala Natural Area Reserve on Hawaii island as part of the ‘Alala Project will now be recaptured to ensure their survival, officials said.
The coalition of partners for the project, which includes the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife and San Diego Zoo Global, said due to recent deaths by predators, mainly the Hawaiian hawk, it will recapture the birds and bring them back to the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center where they were raised.
The measured release of the captive-bred alala into the forest began in the winter of 2016. Dozens managed to successfully live in the wild for two to three years, officials said, and gained valuable skills they can pass on to other birds at the center.
“For the last three years it has been encouraging to see the released birds transition to the wild; foraging, calling, and flying in native forests,” said Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, a biologist and coordinator of The ‘Alala Project in a news release. “It is important to ensure that these surviving alala are able to pass on the skills they have learned in the wild to future generations of the species. While very difficult, bringing these birds back into the breeding program is an interim step to the review and adaptation of the program to recover the species.”
Once found across Hawaii island, the highly intelligent alala have been rarely seen for much of the 20th century, according to DLNR, with fewer than 100 birds remaining in the wild by the 1960s due to habitat loss, invasive mammalian predators, introduced diseases, and other unknown factors.
The alala, who spread the seeds of native forest plants, were last seen in the wild in 2002. Only captive alala remained at the Keauhou Bird and Maui Bird Conservation Centers managed by San Diego Zoo Global.
As part of the ‘Alala Project, a partnership between DOFAW, SDZG, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the crows have been hatched and reared at the two centers, with the goal of releasing about a dozen a year into the wild.
To prepare them for the wild, the captive-bred alala underwent specialized training to recognize Hawaiian hawks, or io, as predators prior to their release, and were closely monitored in the reserve.
They have not only survived for the last few years, including heavy rains in the wake of Hurricane Lane, but attempted to breed in the wild, with some observed nest-building in 2019. One female, named Manaiakalani, was seen sitting on her nest for several weeks in May 2019, while her partner was observed providing her with food.
“We remain committed to this project and have always known that there would be some setbacks and challenges along the way,” said David Smith, DOFAW administrator, in the news release. “Fortunately the project has an extremely knowledgeable, dedicated and passionate team and we believe this level of care and consideration for the alala, will hopefully in time, see a re-establishment of a wild population.”
The recaptured birds will rejoin the population of more than 100 alala being cared for by San Diego Zoo Global’s conservation breeding program.