An alala bends forward in profile against a green background, its blue eye clearly visible

Alala? All Alright

The alala (Hawaiian crow) is revered in Hawaiian culture. It is also environmentally important, serving as a seed disperser vital to regenerating native forests on the Big Island of Hawaii. Unfortunately, the alala was declared extinct in the wild in 2002. We have been working with local and national organizations to reintroduce this species into its natural habitat. In December 2016, a reintroduction attempt was halted after challenges posed by winter storms and predation by the io (Hawaiian hawk). In response, the decision was made to change the release site and timing of release to avoid storms and enhance our antipredator training program to teach alalas how to better respond to predators like this hawk. These changes have had positive results, with 11 birds released in the fall 2017 adapting well to their new wild habitat.

An alala uses a small stick as a tool

The eleven young alala (Hawaiian crows) living in the Puu Makaala Natural Area Reserve on the Island of Hawaii continue to thrive, showing increased natural behaviors, foraging on native plants, and even challenging the occasional io (Hawaiian hawk).  Conservationists are cautiously optimistic about the birds’ continued success in native habitat and are working together with researchers at the University of Hawaii at Hilo to analyze vocalizations of these rare birds.  Foraging and other social behaviors are also being studied to determine if historically seen activities are increasing now that the group has access to the surroundings in which they evolved.

“When the only existing alala were living in the protected aviaries at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, we saw fewer types of alarm and territory calls in the population and the frequency of alarm calls was greatly reduced.” said Alison Greggor, Postdoctoral Associate, San Diego Zoo Global.

“We are beginning to observe behaviors that appear to be responsive to the changes and threats available in natural habitat and we are working on evaluating this scientifically to see if the birds’ rich behavioral repertoire is being recovered now that they have been reintroduced into the forest.” said Joshua Pang-Ching, Research Coordinator of the San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Some of these behaviors include foraging on native fruits, searching for insects within bark of native trees, and interacting with io, which is their natural predator.    

The eleven alala were released into the reserve in September and October 2017. They represent what conservationists hope will be the beginning of a recovered population of the endangered crow species on the island. “ʻAlala are important seed dispersers of native plants, and also were dominant voices of the soundscape of Hawaiian forests, and forest bird communities. The presence of alala, back in their habitat, is a benefit and revitalization for ecosystem health of managed State lands and reserves, such as Puu Makaala Natural Area Reserve” said Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, Project Coordinator of the Alala Project.

The Alala, or Hawaiian crow, has been extinct in the wild since 2002, preserved only at the Keauhou and Maui Bird Conservation Centers managed by San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program, through a partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife. Scientists hypothesize that the possible changes in vocalizations may represent the kind of behaviors necessary to the species’ survival now that they have been returned to their native forest home.