A New Hale (Home) for ‘Alalā

Kate Beer, Research Assistant

E ho`olā`au hou ka `alalā

May the `alalā gather once more in their forest home

San Diego Zoo Global staff recently gathered on the misty slopes of Mauna Loa, Hawaii, for the blessing of a new aviary that will soon house some of the world’s rarest birds. The ‘alalā or Hawaiian crow (Corvus hawaiiensis) is a critically endangered bird that has been extinct in the wild since 2002.  After many years of hard work, a massive collaborative effort between the San Diego Zoo Global, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Hawaii Department of Lands and Natural Resources and others is reaching a critical head later this year with the planned release of five young ‘alalā into the Pu’u Maka’ala Natural Area Reserve.Presently ‘alalā are only found in captivity at the Keauhou and Maui Bird Conservation Centers, facilities managed by the San Diego Zoo on the Big Island and Maui respectively. This year was a good breeding season, with 19 ‘alalā chicks surviving to post-fledging age. With various factors, including age, weight, genetics and overall health accounted for, five male ‘alalā have already been selected as the first of their kind who will fly free in nearly 15 years. A second release is planned for early 2017, of a similar sized group consisting mostly of young female ‘alalā, also hatched in 2016. 

Highly intelligent and recently shown to be adept tool users ‘alalā are an impressive and important member of Hawaii’s forest ecosystem. They are especially valuable seed dispersers, with a large, powerful bill capable of opening fruits that other, smaller species cannot.  ‘Alalā are also a revered species in Hawaiian culture, sometimes holding the place of ‘aumakua, or family guardians or gods, responsible for guiding the recently deceased on their journey to the afterlife. Such rare and precious birds cannot be suddenly released back into the wild and considerable effort is going into preparing both the birds and the release site for this momentous event. One important measure has been the construction of a spacious flight-conditioning aviary within the release site. Here the five ‘alalā will have the opportunity to acclimate to the surrounding conditions and, crucially, develop their flight muscles in preparation for life in the wild.

In keeping with Hawaiian custom, a blessing or moku ka piko ceremony was performed upon completion of the aviary structure and before we could ready the aviary for habituation by the birds. The ceremony was led by Lahela Camara (of our partner Three Mountain Alliance) and Iwikau’ikaua Joaquin (Kamehameha Schools). The centerpiece of the ceremony was the cutting of the piko, from a beautiful lei of native foliage crafted for the blessing. The plants included in the lei each hold their own symbolism and intention, for example leaves from the magnificent koa tree (Acacia koa) represent long life and strength; the fern kupukupu (Nephrolepis cordifoli) for growth and expansion; maile (Alyxia oliviformis) for a new beginning, and kukui (Aleurites moluccanus) for light and guidance. The lei was hung above the main doorway of the aviary, and those present were invited in turn to participate in the cutting of the piko, a smaller centerpiece hanging from the lei, representing an umbilical cord. This symbolic action brought the building to life, making it a suitable sanctuary to bring our precious ‘alalā one step further on their journey to freedom.

In the weeks since the aviary blessing, many hours were spent readying the structure for the birds. SDZG staff, interns, and representatives from all partner organizations were involved in this work. The focus was on preparing the inside of the aviary, including the installation of a solar power unit and water pump, as well as perches and feeding stations for the birds, planting native vegetation, rodent-proofing, and ensuring that the drainage can cope heavy tropical downpours. The SDZG team would like to extend a warm mahalo (thanks!) to all of our partners on The ‘Alalā Project for their support during this intense and busy time.

After many months of planning the ‘alalā were finally transported from the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center to the new aviary on October 11. They seem to be settling into their new hale (home) well, taking in all the sights and sounds of the forest around them. For the staff working on this project it is incredible to imagine these young birds flying free in just a few weeks time. The dream is one step closer to reality! We look forward to bringing you more news from this exciting project as the release date draws near.