‘Ōlapa for the ʻAlalā

Have you ever heard of ‘farm-to-table’, the trendy movement towards eating locally sourced food? Well here at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center we like to treat our birds to ‘forest-to-foodpan’! Our facility is located in Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii and surrounding our aviary buildings is a beautiful regenerating Hawaiian rainforest. Lucky for the alala it is bursting with several bird friendly fruits!

On the menu today is ‘ōlapa (Cheirodendron trigynum). It is a medium sized tree commonly found in the rainforest’s understory. It is often found growing as an epiphyte on other trees like ʻōhiʻa, which is the dominant tree of the forest. ‘Ōlapa is an endemic species, meaning it can’t be found anywhere else in the world except for Hawaiʻi. The leaves of ‘ōlapa may remind you of Quaking Aspen if you’re familiar with trees on the US mainland. That’s because at the end of ‘ōlapa’s long bendy stems hang large oval-shaped leaves. These leaves constantly flutter gracefully even the slightest of wind. It’s as if they are the hula dancers of the rainforest. When you pause and listen to the sound from the moving leaves, the “lapping” noise you hear will clue you into the onomatopoeia aspect of its name. The leaves are a distinctive bright green color and easily stand out against the drab, dark green ʻōhiʻa leaves. While the tree is absolutely gorgeous, collecting the berries is a rather amusing chore. This is no low hanging fruit! In order to cause as little harm as possible to the tree we make use of a tool we like to call the berry pickers. It’s a telescopic tree pruning tool which works by way of a pulley system and allows us to delicately pick just the berries, leaving the rest of the tree intact.

The berries of the ‘ōlapa tree are a very dark purple, almost black in color. Crushing the berries between your fingers will release a dark wine colored juice with a sharp and peppery fragrance. The fruit is enjoyed by several Hawaiian forest birds such as ʻōmaʻo a native thrush, and in the past ʻōʻō and ʻōʻū, two honeycreepers that are now unfortunately extinct. A bird you might not expect to enjoy ‘ōlapa is the ʻalalā, also known as the Hawaiian Crow. The ʻalalā are Hawaiʻi’s largest frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds. They are very important to native seed dispersal, but unfortunately for the last 20 years or so the ʻalalā have been unable to do their job as fruit movers of the forest. Habitat loss, non-native predators such as feral cats and diseases such as avian pox and avian malaria are some of the factors that led to the ʻalalā’s demise in the wild. At the moment they are currently extinct in the wild and only 114 individuals reside in captivity.

The team at KBCC do their best to give the ʻalalā as many native fruits as possible. Not only is it good for the birds, but it’s also great staff enrichment! Watching the captive ʻalalā voraciously eat the native berries is one of the most rewarding parts of my day. It’s as if they instinctively know that the berries are a great snack! They quickly and daintily pick off the berries one by one.  Seeing this triggers daydreams of one day watching wild ʻalalā forage for ‘ōlapa in the forest.  Until then, ‘forest-to-food pan’ is a great way to enrich the ʻalalā in captivity. My hope is that instead of ‘forest-to-food pan’, the new trend will just be ‘forest-to… forest’!

Please enjoy this short video clip of a young female alala who seems to enjoy eating the ‘ōlapa berries just as much as I enjoyed filming her!