Call of the Wild

What was once on the verge of extinction, the endangered ʻAlalā are slowly recovering with the help of the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.

Images by John Hook

We hear the birds before we see them. From somewhere amid the shaded terrain of ʻōhiʻa lehua and shady koa at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center Discovery Forest, an unexpected caw cuts through the still, morning air. The screech, shrill and piercing, belongs to an ʻalalā, a crow endemic to Hawai‘i that most people have rarely heard, let alone seen.

Its animal call, then, is cause for childlike excitement as we approach the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, set in the interior of the forest’s 150 acres. It is at these Hawaiʻi Island headquarters located outside Volcano that the revival efforts of critically endangered native birds including the ʻalalā are spearheaded.

Designated “Extinct in the Wild” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, the ʻalalā is the most threatened species of the entire crow family. Today, only 142 ʻalalā remain, the majority of which are cared for at the Keauhou center and a bird facility on Maui. Most notable, however, are the 11 ‘alalā living wild in the Puʻu Makaʻala Natural Area Reserve on the windward side of Hawaiʻi Island, where they were released by conservationists last year.

Bryce Masuda, the conservation program manager of the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program, leads me inside the Keauhou center’s main building to see two ʻalalā.

“These are the most social of our birds,” Masuda says.

Leo Mana and Po Noe, a 17-year-old male and a 10-year-old female, respectively, have become the most accustomed to guests. Their open-air aviary features sturdy ʻōhiʻa and koa branches on which the birds perch, a tray of fruits that include ʻōhelo berries to sustain their frugivorous diet, and a tire-sized container of water. We peer into the aviary from a viewing room designed to accommodate visits from schools, volunteers, the local community, and media.

Leo Mana and Po Noe are hard to miss. Their wingspans measure about 40 inches, and their bodies are roughly as wide as footballs. There’s a depth to their plumage, a silver-blue luster that glows beautifully against the sun’s natural light. Around their necks are a ring of feathers that fans out like a fluffy beard.

ʻAlalā are monogamous, and Leo Mana and Po Noe appear to be a match made in bird heaven, passing berries back and forth with their beaks to feed each other. The ʻalalā are more majestic, yet cuter, than I expect crows to be.

They are also noticeably inquisitive and alert. About half an hour into observing them, Po Noe, certainly the more expressive of the two that morning, picks up a tiny stick with her bill and pokes it into a hole in a log on the ground. She is probing for insects, Masuda explains, a foraging talent he refers to as “tool use.”

It is the most distinctive display of the ‘alalā’s intelligence—the South Pacific’s New Caledonian crow is the only other documented crow species to showcase tool-wielding abilities—and quite remarkable in the animal kingdom, considering that fewer than 1 percent of the world’s animal genera use tools.

There are still fundamental questions about Hawaiʻi’s native crow that scientists have yet to answer.

“What does it mean for an ʻalalā to be angry at another ʻalalā?” Masuda asks hypothetically as we watch Leo Mana and Po Noe fly and hop about the aviary. Through observation, he hopes humans will one day know the answers to such questions.

“The better we understand their natural behavior,” he says, “the better we can reintroduce them into their habitat.”

Like many native bird species in the islands, the ʻalalā has a familiar and tragic narrative. No one can assert what its normal population size was precontact, according to Masuda, but fossils indicate they were found throughout the Hawaiian Islands. The birds flourished enough to be heard far and wide by the native settlers—‘alalā in Hawaiian means “to bawl, bleat, scream”—who figured them into Hawaiian legends and gathered their feathers for kāhili, standards that symbolized nobility.

Even Captain Cook, when he arrived at a village in Kawaʻaloa, was forewarned not to disturb a pair that were kept as ceremonial pets and considered ʻaumakua. Then avian malaria arrived with mosquitos, and settlers introduced predators like rats, mongoose, and feral cats, which eat birds and their eggs.

By the early 1990s, fewer than 15 ‘alalā were known to exist. The Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, operated by the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program, opened in 1996—the same year the last ‘alalā egg was laid in the wild—with 18 aviaries dedicated to recovering the species. But due to disappearing forest, crow numbers continued to diminish. The last time a truly wild pair of ‘alalā were seen in their natural habitat was in 2002.

It takes a flock of institutions to save this single species. In this case, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program, which includes the rehabilitation activities at Keauhou and on Maui, has partnerships with parent organization San Diego Zoo Global, the State of Hawai‘i Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Kamehameha Schools for funding, permitting, and land management.

The facilities serve as hubs where research and recovery teams monitor the captive birds, breed them, and incubate and hand-rear chicks. When the center pairs up the ʻalalā in aviaries, they start by matching the furthest related individuals to prevent inbreeding.

In 2016, after increasing the species to more than 125 birds, Masuda oversaw a widely publicized release of five ʻalalā into the wild. The excitement was tempered when three turned up dead within two weeks of their release. (The remaining two were recaptured by specialists.) Masuda remembers the day he had to recover one. The bird was motionless in the grass, its breast torn and caked with blood. A necropsy revealed it was killed by an ʻio, the Hawaiian hawk, a natural predator of the ‘alalā.

“It was just a shock,” Masuda recalls. “Just to come across it dead, it was devastating.” But it was also as nature would have intended.

Efforts to reintroduce the species are ongoing—the 11 ‘alalā released in Pu‘u Maka‘ala are succeeding in the wild, and 10 more are being prepared for a future release—and lessons continue to be learned. The ‘alalā program now intends to introduce younger birds into the reserve, since they are expected to better adjust to their surroundings and fend off danger if they observe how other forest birds interact with predators.

Eventually, researchers hope the first generation of ʻalalā will again be born in the wild. A thriving ʻalalā population would not only help recover the native forest through foraging and spreading seeds, but would also allow scientists to learn about their natural behavior and responses to the habitat. For instance, compared to all other crows and ravens, ʻalalā have the most vocalizations, according to Masuda.

Researchers have identified at least 24 unique calls used in the aviaries. But they have also found that the ʻalalā’s vocal repertoire became less pronounced in captivity. This vibrant language originated in a dense, sprawling forest, and would be enriched if the birds could once again explore the region. As I leave the center, an ʻalalā calls out from within the aviary. It is impossible to discern if it is a cry of joy or despair. But it is reassuring to hear the ‘alalā, loud and clear.

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