‘Alalā Project Looks to Next Stage of Recovery

When the first group (cohort) of ‘Alalā (Hawaiian crow) were released in 2016, researchers and scientists knew that the project would encounter obstacles and challenges. Recovering this iconic Hawaiian species would require dedication, coordination, and adaptation. The ‘Alalā Project is now in the fourth year of releases, and despite losses, the project and the birds themselves are continuing to grow and learn in their new environment.

PC: DLNR

“We knew from the beginning, based on the long history of species reintroductions globally, that we would have setbacks,” said Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, coordinator for The ʻAlalā Project and biologist with the Hawaiʻi DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife. Gaudioso-Levita explained, “The lack of ‘Alalā existing in the wild means birds hatched in conservation breeding centers do not have the opportunity to learn survival skills from adults in a natural setting. That’s one of the issues we addressed more fully in the rewrite of our reintroduction plan in 2017, through anti-predator training, as well as release site selection and using social interactions to form release groups.”

Twenty years ago the ‘Alalā was on the brink of extinction. In a last ditch effort to save the species, a group of state and federal government partners and San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) began hatching and raising birds in conservation breeding centers at the San Diego Zoo Global’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on Hawai‘i Island and Maui Bird Conservation Center on Maui. Those birds became the basis of the program to release ‘Alalā back into native forests and recover the species. In 2016 the first cohort of ‘Alalā was released into the Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve (NAR). Following initial losses from natural predators, the bird were re-captured and a new anti-predator training program was created to better prepare the birds for life in their native habitat.

The ʻAlalā Project’s revised reintroduction plan included innovative new predator recognition training for the birds, and in 2017 a cohort of 11 birds was introduced into the forest. “After rigorous pre-release training to recognize raptors as predators and native fruits as food, the 11 released birds showed high survival for over a year, demonstrating encouraging behaviors such as predator defense and natural foraging,” said Alison Greggor, SDZG recovery ecology researcher.

During 2018 a group of ten birds was released and in 2019 a group of seven birds was released. Six birds from the 2017 cohort have since died or gone missing. Two of these birds were killed by ‘Io, one was killed by another ‘Alalā, and the carcasses of three others were never recovered. Five of the ten birds in the 2018 cohort have died or went missing and only one of seven birds from the 2019 cohort has survived. Of the 27 birds released during 2017-2019, to date, ten remain surviving in the wild. While this can be heartbreaking for both the team members who care for the birds and people who follow the project, the losses are not entirely unexpected.

“Although we all regret the losses of these ʻAlalā, this experience is not unlike those we have had with other species back on the mainland, like the California condor or the Stephens’ kangaroo rat, which had many obstacles to establishing successful reintroduction,” said Dr. Ron Swaisgood reintroduction specialist for SDZG.  “I am heartened that we had high survival initially after our 2017 and 2018 ʻAlalā reintroductions, indicating that the pre-release training and habitat management measures we took were working. But it is worrisome that recently many ʻAlalā that had survived a year or more in the wild have now perished. We are all grappling with understanding and addressing these losses.” 

Successes such as the pairing of released birds and nest building in 2019 are important milestones as the team and the birds move into this upcoming breeding season with hope that the remaining birds will successfully breed in the wild.

“It is incredible to watch as both the birds and the Project continue to adapt and learn through this process. The birds are exploring their new habitat, learning from each other, and learning how to survive on their own. We are grateful for the continued support of the community as well as all of our partners as we look to the next stage of recovery for the ʻAlalā,” said Michelle Bogardus, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Geographic Team Leader for Maui Nui and Hawai‘i Island.

The team continues to monitor the remaining five males and five females at Pu‘u Maka‘ala NAR, and remains cautiously optimistic. They’re working toward next steps for the species which is the release of a cohort in the South Kona area planned for 2022. Gaudioso-Levita said, “In the meantime, we are working to keep the ten surviving ‘Alalā healthy and safe, through internal project expertise and consulting with fellow reintroduction experts across the globe. We acknowledge more challenges are ahead, but the steps that will lead to the recovery of the species are still within reach.”  

Recently Released ‘Alalā Birds Found Dead

Less then two weeks after five ‘Alalā birds were released, three have been found dead:

Two young ‘Alalā were moved back into an aviary at the State of Hawai‘i’s Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve last week, as conservationists work to overcome challenges faced by the birds during their reintroduction. A group of five birds were released into the protected reserve on December 14. Although the birds had been observed doing well and eating from feeders placed in the area, three birds were found dead over the last week. The confirmed cause of the deaths is currently unknown but conservationists hope to gather information about what happened to the birds through necropsy examinations.

John Vetter, a wildlife biologist with the Dept. of Land and Natural Resources-Division of Forestry and Wildlife said, “Some level of mortality is to be expected when reintroducing a species back into the wild and we were prepared for that possibility. The initial days of release are always the most difficult stage of any release program, and the level of uncertainty is also highest with the first release cohort. We decided to recapture the remaining birds to ensure their safety while we await the results of the necropsies, so that we can learn, respond, and continue to strive for the long-term success of the Alala.”

Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve is an area that conservationists have worked to preserve, protecting native plants and species, and it represents the type of habitat where ‘Alalā originally lived before their numbers began to decline. 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.

Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager of the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program remarked, “The loss of these three birds is difficult for the entire community, including the many people who have cared for these birds since their hatch and have worked steadfastly to prepare for their release. Condolences for this loss have come from around the world.”

‘Alalā Released Into Natural Area Reserve

Five young ‘Alalā—critically endangered Hawaiian crows—were released into Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on the Big Island of Hawai‘i on Dec, 14. The group of male birds took a few minutes to emerge from the aviary where they had been temporarily housed, and they appeared to show a natural curiosity for their surroundings.

“After being released, the ‘Alalā quickly adjusted to their new home, and began to search for and find food items in the forest,” said Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager of the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program. “Although the birds have now been released, we will continue to monitor them and provide appropriate supplemental food, to ensure they are supported as they encounter challenges.”

The birds were moved to a flight aviary in mid-October, to allow them to acclimate to the sights and sounds of the Hawaiian forest, in preparation for their release. They were then transferred to a smaller aviary in the forest one week prior to the release, from which they were directly released. Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve is an area that conservationists have worked to preserve, protecting native plants and species, and it represents the type of habitat where ‘Alalā originally lived before their numbers began to decline.

“Decades of intensive management by the Three Mountain Alliance watershed partnership have led to the preservation of some of the most intact native-dominated wet and mesic forest on windward Hawai‘i Island, known as Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve,” said Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, project coordinator of the ‘Alalā Project.

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. With more than 100 individuals of the species now preserved 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 also hold significant value in Hawaiian culture. Before the birds were released, a traditional oli, or blessing, was offered members of the ‘Alalā Project.

The mission of the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources is to enhance, protect, conserve and manage Hawaii’s unique and limited natural, cultural and historic resources, held in public trust for current and future generations of the people of Hawai’i and its visitors, in partnership with others from the public and private sectors.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The mission of the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office is to conserve and restore native biodiversity and ecological integrity of Pacific island ecosystems for the benefit of present and future generations through leadership, science-based management and collaborative partnerships.

Alala-Hack Tower Transfer Day from Hawaii DLNR on Vimeo.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

Scientist Sequence Genome of the ‘Alalā (Hawaiian Crow)

In collaboration with PacBio, scientists at San Diego Zoo Global and the University of Hawaii, Hilo have fully sequenced the genome of the ‘Alalā, or Hawaiian crow and shared the results of this effort at the recent annual Plant and Animal Genomics XXIV Conference in San Diego. The ‘Alalā was once reduced to a population of about 20 birds, and the sequencing of the species’ genome will be important to track any genetic challenges that may occur due to the reduced genetic diversity now seen in the species.

The sequencing of its genome comes at the beginning of what is hoped to be an important year for the Hawaiian crow. Conservationists hope to reintroduce this species into prepared habitat on the island of Hawaii later this year. The ‘Alalā has been extinct in the wild since 2002, preserved only in the program run by San Diego Zoo Global at their bird centers in Hawaii.

“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 ‘Alalā 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.”

The program’s goal has been to increase the ‘Alalā flock to 75 or more individuals before releasing them into their native forests on the island of Hawaii. The ‘Alalā is a member of the crow family that was brought to the brink of extinction by loss of habitat, and introduced predators and diseases. For species that have been at the brink of extinction, genetic fitness and the information stored in their genome may prove an important tool in the fight to save them.

“Learning more about the genome of the species can help us understand more about how that species will interact with and fit back into its native habitat,” said Jolene Sutton, assistant professor at the University of Hawaii, Hilo. “Through scientific collaboration with PacBio, we now have a map of ‘Alalā DNA that could prove critical to their long term recovery. We are absolutely thrilled with the quality of the sequencing, and we have already identified several gene locations that we think could have a big influence on reintroduction success.”

Hawaii Gets Federal Money to Protect Crows, Hawks and Snails

Imperiled species will benefit from a total of $5.1 million in grants to 11 states through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s competitive State Wildlife Grants (SWG) program. The grants, which focus on large-scale conservation projects yielding measurable results, will be matched by more than $3.1 million in non-federal funds from states and their partners for projects that work to conserve and recover Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) and their habitats.

Shown: Achatinella bulimoides. This snail was thought to be extinct for the past 20 years until the Army rediscovered it in Oahu's Ko'olau Mountains.

Shown: Achatinella bulimoides. This snail was thought to be extinct for the past 20 years until the Army rediscovered it in Oahu’s Ko’olau Mountains.

“The projects funded by these grants target some of the most imperiled species and habitats in the United States,” said Service Director Dan Ashe. “These projects are receiving funding because they are tied to well-thought-out conservation plans that identify the highest-priority areas where we can make the biggest difference for imperiled species.”

HAWAII FUNDING:

Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Forestry and Wildlife
Title: Creating Capacity to Restore a Self-Sustaining Wild Population of ‘Alala (Corvus hawaiiensis) to Hawai’i Island

Goals and Objectives: A broad coalition of private and federal partners working under the leadership of Hawai’i State Department of Land and Natural Resources will collaborate to protect and restore the Hawaiian Crow, or ‘Alala, which has been federally listed as an endangered species since 1967. The partners will establish field aviaries at proposed ‘Alala release sites and keep the sites free of ungulates, predators, and habitat-altering weeds. The long-term goal of the effort is to establish a viable wild population of the species through the release of captive-bred birds. A key partner in this project is the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

Federal Funds Requested: $248,524; Non-Fed Match: $150,000

Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Forestry and Wildlife

Title:  Initiating Landscape-Scale Conservation Management of Ka’u Forest Reserve

Goals and Objectives: Hawai’i State Department of Land and Natural Resources will implement critical conservation actions within a 2,000-acre management unit of the Ka’u Forest Reserve. The work will address key threats to 18 SGCN, including 12 federally-listed endangered species such as the ‘Io or Hawaiian Hawk (Buteo solitarius). This broad partnership effort includes many private, state, and federal partners working together to protect imperiled species within a Priority Ecosystem Conservation Area—one of the most diverse and intact forests on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Conservation actions include fencing and ungulate control, invasive plant control, and habitat restoration.

Federal Funds requested: $250,000; Non-Federal match: $125,000

Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Forestry and Wildlife

Title: Management Actions to Prevent the Extinction of Rare Hawaiian Land Snails

Goals and Objectives: The Hawai’i Division of Forestry and Wildlife will partner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a U.S. Army Garrison, and the University of Hawai’i at Manoa to implement conservation efforts targeting 41 snail species of the federally-listed genus Achatinella as well as five extremely rare species in the family Amastridae. The partners’ strategy includes release of captive-bred snails into natural habitat protected by predator exclusion fencing in the Ko’olau Mountains of O’ahu. Other actions include population surveys, monitoring, and predator control.

Federal Funds Requested: $249,952; Non-Fed Match: $87,483

The SWG funds will benefit a variety of species and habitats: In North Carolina and South Carolina, partners’ work will help inform decision-making and management for the robust redhorse and up to 52 additional fishes, mussels and crayfish.  In Minnesota, SWG funds will support conservation actions to benefit the imperiled wood turtle, the rare smooth softshell turtle, the Blandings turtle and other turtle species of greatest conservation need. SWG funding also will be used by Iowa, Missouri and Illinois to conserve and improve habitat for the greater prairie-chicken as well as a range of other bird and butterfly SGCN. For more information about each of the grant projects, visit http://wsfrprograms.fws.gov/Subpages/GrantPrograms/SWG/SWG2013FundedProjects.pdf

SWG-funded projects implement strategies and actions to conserve SGCN as identified in approved State Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Plans (also known as State Wildlife Action Plans). Funding for the grants comes from Fiscal Year 2013 appropriations.

“We appreciate the strong ties formed by state agencies and their partners to protect these imperiled wildlife species and their habitats,” said Hannibal Bolton, the Service’s Assistant Director for Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration. “These partnerships are critical to the on-the-ground success of these projects.”

All 50 states and six territorial wildlife agencies have approved State Wildlife Action Plans that collectively provide a nationwide blueprint for actions to conserve SGCN. The plans were created through a collaborative effort among state and federal agencies, biologists, conservationists, landowners, sportsmen and -women and the general public.

The Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program (WSFR) is a 75-year partnership to benefit fish and wildlife and provide Americans with access to the outdoors through a self-imposed investment paid by manufacturers and users of gear bought by anglers, boaters, hunters and shooters and managed by federal and state fish and wildlife agencies. Fishing and hunting licenses and motorboat fuel taxes also support fish and wildlife. For 75 years, the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program has provided more than $14 billion for fish and wildlife, supplied jobs for many Americans and benefited local economies through boating, fishing, hunting and shooting activities.

The Hand that Feeds the Birds – The Hawaiian Endangered Bird Conservation Program

The San Diego Zoo has a Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program:

More than 662 birds have been released since our Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program began in 1994, which has helped breed and reintroduce endangered, native birds in the Hawaiian Islands.

This program will continue captive breeding and reintroduction efforts for the puaiohi, ‘alala, nene, and palila. In order to further conservation efforts of the Maui parrotbill, researchers will collect wild eggs or adult birds when appropriate. Environmental education programs and renovations to improve the Maui Bird Conservation Center will continue.

Recently they just had their ‘Aala bird population reach over 100 birds with the birth of this bird:

[youtube=http://youtu.be/sIJLzX_SQ2c]

Watch as a newly hatched ‘alala, or Hawaiian crow, is fed by a human helper. Our Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program has now reached a milestone of over 100 ‘alala!

The zoo even has a blog devoted specifically to the conservation program you can check it out here, Hawaiian Birds where they explain more about the ‘alala as well as many of the other projects they are working on.