In 2002, the last two wild `alala (a.k.a. Hawaiian crows) disappeared from their native habitat. The spring of that year was also the moment when I first arrived in Hawaii to start working on the `alala recovery program.
I had traveled halfway around the world from Mauritius—an island surprisingly similar to the Hawaiian Islands, but nestled in the Indian Ocean approximately 600 miles east of Madagascar. Spending much of my time in the company of fervent “bird nerds,” word had reached me about the plight of the `alala and the impressive efforts being undertaken by the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and the Peregrine Fund to rescue them from extinction.
I was one of the new recruits joining the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program to assist with the daily husbandry and breeding management of the `alala flock, as well as the other species of smaller forest birds and the nene (pronounced nay-nay) at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center. The first day’s biggest challenge was mastering the pronunciation of the various species residing in the forest bird barn aviaries – puaiohi, palila, `akepa, `akohekohe, `elepaio.
The second day’s challenge was discovering the different species’ feeding ecology, and consequently what diets we prepared for them in captivity—which birds were the nectarivores for which we had to pick blossoms; which were the frugivores for which we had to pick native berries; which were the insectivores for which we had to catch moths and culture waxworms; and most strangely of all, for the palila, we had to trek up to the alpine scrubland on the slopes of Mauna Loa to pick the seedpods of the mamane tree.
By the start of my third week, the learning curve had become even steeper—I began to learn the names of the individual `alala, with whom they were paired with, and in which of the aviaries they resided. A notebook was essential as I encountered Kila Kila and Pikoi in aviary #4, Maiaokea and Akamai in aviary #6, and Puanani and Kalani in aviary #C, scattered around the grounds amongst the spectacular koa and ohia trees on the edge of the rainforest.
The experience of working with such threatened and unique avifauna was certainly one to treasure. At the time, with scarcely more than 20 `alala at KBCC and another 10 birds at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, the future of the `alala was by no means secure and there was no guarantee of them surviving into the next decade. At the moment, I could not imagine myself coming back to Hawaii, so, stealing a sentiment from Douglas Adams, I considered that summer experiencing the `alala as my “last chance to see” this charismatic, island raven.
Yet here I find myself, a decade later, still in Hawaii, and still marveling at the sights and sounds of `alala. But a lot has changed in the past 10 years. The captive `alala population has tripled to more than more than 100 individuals. The aviary facilities at both KBCC and MBCC have expanded tremendously to accommodate the burgeoning captive flock. At present, the small fledging aviaries at the back of our hand-rearing rooms are reverberating with the shrieks of our youngest cohorts of `alala, impatiently awaiting their next feed and boisterously exploring their new powers of flight. Most exciting of all, we are now making plans for the reintroduction of `alala back to the wild.
Happily, we no longer breed and release nene from either of our facilities because the wild population is now considered viable enough to support itself. Similarly, after releasing 222 puaiohi back in the Alakai Swamp on the island of Kauai, the wild puaiohi population is now considered large and stable enough to give it a chance of survival, without the need for our regular, reliable infusion of captive-reared birds.
But it has not been all good news for Hawaiian birds in the past decade. In November 2004, the very last po’o-uli died—the species is no longer found in its rainforest habitat on the island of Maui. On the Big Island, the wild palila population is hanging on by a thread, still threatened by goats and sheep destroying its habitat, drought, and nonnative mammalian predators. On the island of Kauai, populations of several species of Hawaiian honeycreeper have declined dramatically, as the spread of mosquitoes and avian malaria take hold of the birds’ former strongholds. Who can predict precisely what impact the recent introduction of mongoose to Kauai will have on the ground-nesting seabirds and wetland birds…but it is unlikely to be a favorable outcome.
There is so much work still to be done.
Richard Switzer, Associate Director, Applied Animal Ecology, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.