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    October 2017
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‘Alalā Released Into Natural Area Reserve

Six young ‘Alalā—critically endangered Hawaiian crows—were released into Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on the Island of Hawai‘i, today. The first group of birds: two females and four males took some time to emerge from the aviary where they had been temporarily housed and they appeared to show a natural curiosity for their surroundings. Plans are to release a second group of five birds: two females and three males in mid-October from the same release aviary.

Previously, in December 2016 a reintroduction attempt was halted after challenges posed by winter storms and predation on ‘Alalā by `Io, (Hawaiian hawk). The concerted reintroduction efforts, funded by the State of Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), San Diego Zoo Global, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have addressed those challenges by changing the timing of release to avoid winter storms, changing the release site location, releasing a social group of both males and females, and enhancing the “antipredator training program” to teach the released birds how to better respond to predators like `Io.  A high mortality rate is associated with releasing species into the wild. This is especially true for species like ‘Alalā that have been in captivity for longer periods of time. A successful conservation breeding program gives managers the flexibility to adapt their management techniques to improve successful transition to the wild. Conservation breeding programs are key tools for recovering threatened and endangered species.

For example, the nēnē, or Hawaiian goose, has returned from the brink of extinction thanks to an intensive breeding program and the dedication of many partners over decades, and this species still requires active management and monitoring. For ‘Alalā, these continued efforts are also essential to the species’ recovery.

“The recovery of the ‘Alalā is an excellent example of partners working together to do something that has never been done before.” said Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager of the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program. “Although bringing the ‘Alalā back from the brink of extinction will take a lot of time and perseverance, many people are dedicated to saving this important species.”

Nine of the 2017 release birds were moved to a flight aviary in early 2017, to allow them to acclimate to the sights and sounds of the Hawaiian forest, and to socialize them with the two males that survived the December 2016 release. They were then transferred to a smaller aviary in the forest two weeks prior to the release. Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve is an area that conservationists of the Three Mountain Alliance and DLNR have worked for decades to preserve, protecting native plants and species, and it represents a type of high-elevation habitat where ‘Alalā originally lived before their numbers began to decline.

The outcomes of the 2016 release posed great conservation challenges to the members of the ‘Alalā Working Group, the decision-making body of the ‘Alalā Project. The next step to the recovery for ‘Alalā could only be realized through innovative thinking, consultation with outside experts, and extensive revisions to the reintroduction strategy. This was a process that took over six months to complete. “If not for the strength of partnerships in the ‘Alalā Working Group, we would not be able to move forward as efficiently as we have”, said Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, project coordinator of the ‘Alalā Project. In addition to the funding agencies and organizations of the ‘Alalā Project, cooperative partners include Kamehameha Schools, Three Mountain Alliance, U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Park Service.

The ‘Alalā, 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 Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program. With more than 125 individuals of the species at the centers, conservationists are ready to return the birds to their native forests. ‘Alalā are an important part of the life of the Hawaiian forest, as they eat and assist with the dispersal of native plant seeds. The reintroduction of this species, which has been gone from the forest for more than a decade, is expected to play an important part in the overall recovery of the ecosystem. ‘Alalā are not only ecologically significant as dispersers of Hawai’i’s native plants, but they are also significantly revered in Hawaiian culture. At sunrise on the day of the bird’s release, a ceremony was held by members of the ʻAlalā Project to set the intentions for their return to their forest home.

“Recovering threatened and endangered species takes dedicated partnerships like The ‘Alalā Project,” said Michelle Bogardus, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Geographic Team Leader for Maui Nui and Hawaii Island. “We will continue to work with our partners to protect and recover Hawaii’s threatened and endangered species.”

DLNR Chair Suzanne Case commented, “This has been an ongoing learning process for everyone, to get it right for the ‘Alalā to learn the skills they need to survive. The entire project highlights the benefits of protecting habitat and addressing threats such as predators, disease, and invasive species before populations decline so rapidly that recovery becomes even more challenging.”

Six Alala Released into Hawaii Natural Area Reserve from Hawaii DLNR on Vimeo.

‘Alalā Reintroduction Project Planning Further Releases After Recent Challenges – Birds Likely Killed By Hawaiian Hawk

Next Release Group to Receive Additional Predator-Aversion Training

Reintroduction efforts for the ʻAlalā, the native Hawaiian crow, began in December of last year with the release of five ʻAlalā into a Hawai‘i Island State Natural Area Reserve. Sadly, three birds did not survive, and the remaining two were brought back into captivity.

Members of The ‘Alalā Project say that the reintroduction of captive-raised birds without the benefit of experienced ‘Alalā already in the wild is very challenging. Biologists around the world say releases like this are usually marked with fits and starts, and that reintroduction success is not usually seen before multiple releases. Nēnē, the native Hawaiian goose, once had a population of only 30 birds and was part of a captive breeding program. “The recovery of Nēnē took over five decades of conservation actions to achieve, and while there are now over 3,000 birds in the wild, Nēnē populations still require active management to persist,” said Joey Mello, Hawai’i Branch DOFAW Wildlife Program Manager (East Hawai’i).

Despite the temporary setback, preparations are underway for the release of the next group of ‘Alalā. Nine birds are now in a flight aviary that was constructed in the State’s Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve; three more birds will be moved there soon. All of these birds are healthy and are checked and fed daily. Project team members closely observe their foraging skills, behaviors, and social interactions. The ‘Alalā Project anticipates the release of these 12 birds later this year.

Necropsies on the three ‘Alalā released last December indicate that none of the crows died due to disease exposure. Necropsy (autopsy for animals) results indicate that two of the birds were likely killed by another endangered bird, the ‘Io or native Hawaiian hawk. ‘Io are known to prey upon other birds – such is the circle of life in the wild. The third bird appears to have died from natural circumstances that led to poor physical condition.

Prior to any release, candidate birds undergo extensive training and conditioning to best ensure their long-term survival in the forest. This includes predator aversion training. The project team has consulted with world-renown predator aversion training specialists and is now focusing on making improvements to that training to give the released ‘Alalā a better chance of avoiding ‘Io.

The three ‘Alalā that died were named ‘Ike, Kau’ikauikalani, and Pewa. The necropsies were conducted by the San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG), which operates Hawaiʻi bird conservation centers on Hawai‘i Island and on Maui. The ‘Alalā were offspring of birds brought into captivity over a decade ago, around the time that the last remaining bird went extinct in the wild in 2002.

The ‘Alalā Project is comprised of more than a half dozen state and federal agencies, non-government agencies, and private landowners, that collectively and successfully have hatched more than 200 ‘Alalā at the SDZG bird conservation centers. The ‘Alalā Project is just one of many projects across the state committed to native species conservation. Together, these efforts protect and preserve the incredible and unique biodiversity of our islands.