Resources on the Hawaiian crow, 'alala, Corvus hawaiiensis.
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Resources on the Hawaiian crow, by Michael Westerfield
Do you have any current information about the 'alala you would like to share? Please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
POSTED 1/28/2016: Is it wise to release ‘Alala into the wild at this time?
The San Diego zoo recently announced that it had completed the sequencing of the genes of the ‘Alala, the Hawaiian crow that is extinct in the wild, existing only as captive specimens in a breeding program maintained by the zoo. The announcement included the following statement.
“We have been working for many years to build up a large enough—and genetically diverse enough—population to allow us to begin putting the ‘Alala back in the wild,” said Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. “We have achieved our goal, and are now preparing to release birds into the wild in 2016.”
It is undeniable that the San Diego Zoo and its partners have done great work bringing the ‘Alala back from the brink of extinction, having increased the total number of birds from 20 to about 120. One can understand the great pressure they are under to reestablish the species in the wild, but it is difficult to avoid thinking that any attempt to release ‘Alala at this time would be premature and exceedingly ill advised. Corvids in general are very social birds and their survival strategy is based on group rather than individual action. Much of their defense against predators and other environmental dangers is learned rather than inherited and, at this point there are no older ‘Alala left who have experience in dealing with life outside the small aviaries at the conservation centers on the Big Island and Maui. Releasing inexperienced ‘Alala into the wild would have about the same expectation of success as releasing a group of inner city human kids into the forest and expecting them to thrive.
Reintroducing ‘Alala back into their native environment should be a gradual process, allowing them the time and opportunity to learn the survival skills they will need in an unprotected environment. I strongly suggest that first a number of birds should be released into an extremely large aviary enclosing a semi-wild area where they could begin learning these skills. I also suggest that perhaps ‘Alala should not be released solely into a remote area, but also into a human occupied landscape, such as a large aviary, including a human viewing/picnic area at a location like the zoo outside of Hilo. ‘Alala once shared the Big Island with native Hawaiians - Captain Cook's expedition noted them in a local village - and they will have to share it with humans now and in the future. It is quite possible, that like other corvids around the world, they would be safer from predators and other dangers living in a urban landscape with humans who protect them, than facing all the hazards of the wild forest. Michael Westerfield
POSTED: June 12, 2012. ‘Alala Population Soars Past 100. The latest report from the San Diego Zoo’s ‘alala recovery project provides great information and some wonderful photos of the hatching of this year’s crop of chicks. The link below will get you to the blog.
POSTED: June 12, 2012. A link to a video from 2011, which gives an excellent presentation on the techniques used in the process of hatching and rearing ‘alala at one of the San Diego Zoological Society’s facilities. There also are some great shots of adult ‘alala.
POSTED June 11, 2012. DRAFT ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT, Ka‘u Forest Reserve Management Plan, May 2012.
This 385 page document prepared for the State of Hawai‘iDepartment of Land and Natural Resources, contains a great deal of information concerning possible sites and methods for releasing ‘alala in the wild. It is long but the parts about the ‘alala are quite interesting.
POSTED: January 19, 2012. ‘Alala Population Grows By Over 23%
Richard Switzer, Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program Manager Reports:
Last season we hatched 20 `alala chicks. All 19 of the hand-reared chicks were successfully raised to independence. The 20th chick was hatched under a foster female as the first attempt at raising a parent-reared `alala in many years. Sadly, this chick died on day 4. The 19 remaining youngsters are all currently healthy and divided into 3 rambunctious groups.
So as a review of 2011, here is a very brief population summary:
So over the course of the year, the `alala population rose by more than 23%. Another record breeding season and a tremendous year for `alala recovery. Keeping fingers crossed for another great year in 2012!
POSTED: August 8, 2011. FANTASTIC NEWS! According to reports, twenty 'alala chicks hatched this year, of which nineteen survived. There are now almost a hundred Hawaiian crows in existence. (95 'alala, if my counting is correct and no older birds have died.)
POSTED: June 28, 2011. It is our understanding that, as of this date, 13 new ‘alala have hatched and there is the possibility of more hatching in the days to come.
POSTED June 17, 2011. A Good Year for ‘Alala
As of June 6th, the folks at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Big Island of Hawaii reported that eight new ‘alala chicks had been hatched successfully bringing the total population of Hawaiian crows up to 84. This is the highest it has been in many years, and more successful hatchings were anticipated. Hopefully we will hear about further increases in the ‘alala flock soon. Read all about it by following the link below.
POSTED: 1/12/11. Thoughts on the Preservation of the 'Alala. (Michael Westerfield)
Currently, 'alala recovery efforts are focused on a captive breeding program managed by the San Diego Zoological Society with the aim of increasing the size of the 'alala population to the point where efforts can begin once again to reintroduce it into "the wild". This portion of the program is undoubtedly being carried out as expertly as possible and its success will ultimately depend upon the capability of the breeding pairs of 'alala to produce viable eggs and offspring.
While I have confidence that the captive breeding program is being appropriately and effectively managed, I do have some distinct reservations about the design of the reintroduction program which I believe may be based on a variety of faulty premises. Chief among these is the concept of that restored native forests are the most appropriate habitat for a reintroduced 'alala population.
The sum total of knowledge about wild 'alala populations is very sketchy indeed, based for the most part on recent observations of a remnant population living in what, quite possibly, was very marginal crow habitat. Most crow species throughout the world actually do much better in certain types of human created landscapes than in native forests, and I suspect the 'alala is no exception. I would strongly suggest that the Hawaiian crow was probably most numerous in the period between the earliest human settlement of the Big Island and European contact, and that the areas most favored by 'alala were in close proximity to native villages and their associated agricultural fields, fish ponds, and middens.
Crows have always been closely associated with humans, since human activity, particularly in the pre-industrial age of small settlements and diverse agricultural fields, creates precisely the environment which crows are best able to exploit. Crows are well suited to living on the edges of cultivated areas benefiting both from the agricultural activities and from the edible waste generated by humans. Human communities also tend to be very effective in eliminating many of the predators that attack crows, thus providing fairly safe havens for corvids.
This close association of crows and humans may very well have been the situation on the Big Island before Europeans disrupted the entire ecosystem with their introduction of plantation agriculture, non-native plants, predators, and livestock, and the destruction of the native Hawaiian way of life. Given the likelihood of this scenario, I would suggest that the preservation and restoration of the 'alala would be most successful if, rather than releasing captive reared birds into a reconstructed "wilderness", they be released, under carefully controlled conditions, into a human created and occupied landscape.
Care has been taken to minimize contact between humans and captive reared 'alala to avoid "imprinting" or over dependency of crows on humans. I suggest that this may well be counter-productive. Like humans, crows survive as members of a complex society where the ability to survive depends primarily upon group activity and learned behavior. The Hawaiian crow has already lost the greater part of its "culture", since most, if not all remaining 'alala have been bred and raised in captivity in relative isolation from the environment and exposed only to a very limited number of other members of their species. Before any success can be achieved with wild releases of 'alala, conditions must be created for them to recreate a new culture, new behaviors, that will allow them to thrive in the conditions that exist on the Big Island today.
Given all of the above, and postulating sufficient funds for the purpose and the agreement of all relevant parties, I would suggest the following as the plan most likely to succeed in reintroducing a healthy, self-sustaining population of 'alala into the environment of the Big Island of Hawaii.
Rather than rearing captive bred 'alala in isolation from humans, birds should be allowed to become intimately familiar with humans relatively soon after the fledgling stage, after having been allowed to imprint on other 'alala. The object should be to prepare the birds to function successfully in a human dominated environment. They should also have maximum exposure to as many other 'alala as possible, under closely controlled conditions, to begin establishing the social relationships which are essential to crow survival. During the mating and nesting seasons, breeding pairs may need to be kept in less stressful conditions of semi-isolation, but at other times of the year they should be able to mix together, as crows do in the natural environment.
When a sufficiently large population of 'alala has been established at the breeding facilities to allow the process of reintroduction to begin, I would suggest that one appropriate location for the first step in the process would be an area immediately adjacent to the Pana'ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens on the outskirts of Hilo. Ideally, an extremely large aviary, several acres in extent, would be constructed and within a portion of this aviary a snack bar and picnic area would be located for zoo patrons. 'Alala would have access to the entire area of the aviary, while human visitors would be restricted to the picnic areas. This would, under controlled conditions, recreate the typical locations where crows often interact informally with humans. When the number of ‘alala grew to exceed the capacity of the aviary, careful introduction into other human dominated landscapes, after thorough education of residents, might prove far more successful than setting them free in an expensively recreated and always dangerous “natural” landscape.
Certainly not all captive ‘alala should be introduced into a controlled environment shared with humans. A population as genetically diverse as possible should be maintained at the captive breeding facilities to continually produce new individuals to increase the population size. However, if captive breeding success continues at its current level, it will not be too long before the number of ‘alala begins to tax the capacity of the current facilities and a release program will be initiated. I believe that it is imperative to avoid the catastrophic results of previous release efforts, and that non-traditional approaches, such as the one outlined above, should be seriously considered for the reintroduction of this most endangered corvid into an environment that, in reality, has been and will be shaped by and shared with humans.
POSTED: 11/10/2010. Endangered native crow’s population grows by 11. Click below for a news story from the Honolulu Star Advertiser about the recent additions to the “alala flock.
POSTED: 11/03/2010. New Homes for Growing ‘Alala Flock. The increasing number of ‘alala has necessitated the construction of new aviaries. Read all about it by following the link below.
POSTED: 10/15/2010. Record Breeding Season for ‘Alala. Thirteen ‘alala chicks hatched this breeding season, of which a record eleven survived. Follow the link below to read the latest from the ‘alala captive breeding program.
POSTED: 10/15/2010: ‘Alala Outreach Coordinator selected. As of September 1, 2010, Mililani Browning was hired as the first ‘Alala Outreach Coordinator. She has been working with the members of the ‘Alala Recovery Team to devise outreach plans and strategies. With Mililani on the job, we can look forward to hearing a lot more about the amazing ‘alala in the near future.
POSTED: October 3, 2010. ‘Alala Outreach Coordinator Word has it that an ‘Alala Outreach Coordinator has been hired. We don’t know any details yet, but we look forward to working with the new Coordinator to continue to get the word out about the plight of the Hawaiian crow and the great work that is being done to bring it back from the brink of extinction. Hopefully more news on this will be available soon. (ADDED 10/7/2010: If anyone has any information about the 'Alala Outreach Coordinator or how to contact him or her, we would greatly appreciate hearing from you at email@example.com
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office. The endangered species summary for the ‘alala Click the link below to read the official listing.
POSTED: 7/6/2010. 'Alala population up to 78 birds as of July 2, 2010. 7/10/2010. See an 'alala hatch.Read the latest update from the 'alala captive breeding program. A video of an 'alala hatching has been added to this blog. There is a link to it in the text of the blog. It may take a very long time to download, but please be patient. Very few persons have ever witnessed this event.
POSTED: 5/17/2010. ‘Alala Chicks are Hatching. As of May 12, 2010, three new ‘alala chicks had hatched successfully, bringing the total number of (known) ‘alala in the world to 70. There are other eggs in the incubator and other females that might still lay this year. Read about the latest successes in the ‘alala restoration program at:
POSTED: 2/28/2010. The final version of the “Revised Recovery Plan for the ‘Alala (Corvus hawaiiensis), completed in 2009, is now available online. It appears to have incorporated a number of improved strategies for re-establishing the ‘alala in the wild. The plan may be accessed at:
The link below will take you to a page with some nice 'alala photographs and a wonderful sampling of 'alala vocalizations and another link to the "Recovery Plan".
Current status of the ‘alala: The news is good!
The size of the population of the Hawaiian crow, the ‘alala, is steadily growing. The official word is: “Currently the 'Alala population stands at 67 individuals. 52 are at the Kilauea Bird Conservation Center on Hawai'i, 14 at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, and one at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. In 2009 there were 9 chicks hatched, of which 8 survived. There was one adult mortality in 2009. Captive facility construction is keeping pace with flock growth.”
Kinohi, the 19 year old male ‘alala who was sent to the San Diego Zoo Wild Animal Park in an effort to ensure that his genetic material was not lost in the advent of his death, has been having an interesting time finding a safe permanent home there. Click on the link below to read more of his story on the San Diego Zoo blog.
Recently one 'alala was sent from its home at the Maui Bird Conservation Center to the San Diego Wild Animal Park where extraordinary efforts will be made to make certain that the 19 year old bird's genes are not lost should it die without breeding. Click on the link below to read the story.
Reports of $14,000,000 allocation for 'Alala in error!
We have just received word from the 'Alala Recovery Team that there actually have not been any additional funds allocated for the 'alala. According to team leader Jeff Burgett, Ph.D., "The AP story was based on a misreading of our press release. $14M is an estimate of what it would cost to implement the recovery plan for the next 5 years. We have to do that for every recovery plan, but it unfortunately doesn't make the money magically appear!"
The link below will take you to the website of the Recovery Plan itself, as well as a page with some nice 'alala photographs and a wonderful sampling of 'alala vocalizations.
POSTED: 4/28/2009 (UPDATED 4/29/2009)
Since the initial announcement of the $14,000,000 funding allocation for the preservation of the 'alala there has been very little further news on this subject from any source. It does appear that the funds allocated are to implement the steps presented in the "Draft Revised Recovery Plan for the 'Alala Corvus hawaiiensis" which was published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in October 2003. This was a revision of the original recovery plan approved October 28, 1982. At the time the Revised Plan was published the entire population of Hawaiian crows was reported as 40 individuals, all in captivity at the Keauhou and Maui Bird Conversation Centers on Hawaii and Maui respectively. The 'alala was believed to be extinct in the wild.
During the period between the two versions of the Plan, 1982 - 2003, heroic efforts were made by many individuals and organizations to breed 'alala in captivity and to release them into suitable habitat where 'alala currently or histiorically occurred. Due to a remarkable variety of circumstances, these efforts failed badly, resulting in the death of a number of birds and the loss of a significant portion of the existing gene pool. The remaining "wild" birds were all captured and placed in aviaries at the bird conservation centers, where captive breeding and hand rearing of young were carried out. Unfortunately, due persumably to the very small gene pool as well as other unknown circumstances, the production of viable eggs and offspring was very low. During the period from 2003 to the present, it appears that, despite the professional and sophisticated efforts of the San Diego Zoological Society, the total population of 'alala has only increased from 40 to 60.
In response to a question from a reader of the Hawaii Bird Project blog, Alan Lieberman, who is Director of the 'Alala Recovery Project for the San Diego Zoological Society, posted information about the uses of the grant funds in the comment section of the project's blog. You can reach this by clicking on the link below. Scroll down for the comments.
NEWS FLASH: 4/19/09: $14,000,000 has been allocated by the federal government for the preservation of the Hawaiian crow. Currently the news available is sketchy and appears inaccurate, but it appears that 14 million in economic recovery money has been allocated to implement the "Revised Recovery Plan" for the 'alala, which includes both captive breeding programs and habitat acquisition and improvement for the eventual return of some captive bred 'alala to the wild. Presumably, the San Diego Zoological Society will manage the program. More news as it appears.
Last year, when I was on the Big Island of Hawaii, I made an effort to find out the status of the critically endangered Hawaiian crow, Corvus hawaiiensis. The story of my hunt for information “on the ground” is given on the “Featured Reports” page. On my return to the Mainland, I made a thorough internet search on the subject and was rather amazed at the scarcity of information posted both on the Hawaiian crow and the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center at which the majority of ‘alala are kept.
As far as I could determine, there are currently somewhere between 57 and 65 Hawaiian crows in existence, all in captivity. In 2006, 57 ‘alala were reported. In 2007 some additional birds were hatched and survived, but I have been unable to find the actual number. In 2008, six Hawaiian crows hatched, of which four survived. (NOTE: an entry in the San Diego Zoological Society's Blog dated April 21, 2009, gives the number of living 'alala as 60. The numbers don't add up correctly unless there were some fatalities.)I believe that the majority, if not all of the ‘alala, are at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Hilo side of the Big Island of Hawaii and that a smaller number are at the Olinda Bird Conservation Center on Maui, though I have no recent confirmation of this. I also believe that all the birds currently alive have been born in captivity.
There is very little chance that someone not associated with the Bird Conservation Program could manage to get even a glimpse of a Hawaiian crow until such time as a population is reestablished in the wild or the captive population grows large and healthy enough to allow a few members to be displayed publicly. Below you will find links to the various sites or publications where information on the Hawaiian crow can be found.
Alan Lieberman, Conservation Program Manager of the Zoological Society of San Diego, talks about the hazards of the present releases of volcanic gasses on the Bird Conservation Center. There are a couple of brief shots of the ‘alala at the Center.
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