Wondering how long ʻalalā live? Want to learn more about the captive breeding program?
Below is a list of Frequently Asked Questions and answers all about ʻalalā.
They are organized by subject: Physical Traits, History, Captive Breeding, Release, and Cultural Connections.
Click on each down arrow to see FAQs for each subject.
1. How long do ʻalalā live?
ʻAlalā are known to have lived 18 years in the wild (one female) and 29 years in captivity (one male, named Kalani).
2. What is the length of an ʻalalā?
From bill to tail, the ʻalalā is about 20” long. That’s over 1.5 feet, or the same length as a newborn human baby!
3. How much does an ʻalalā weigh?
It weighs about one pound, or about the same weight as a football. Males are usually slightly heavier than females.
4. Is the ʻalalā more like a crow or a raven?
The ʻalalā does look more like the Common Raven (Corvus corax) found in North America, although it is smaller in size. Research shows that its genetics are also closer to a raven, although more research is needed in this area. A member of the Corvid family (includes ravens, crows, magpies, jays), the ʻalalā is thought to have colonized the islands several hundred thousand years ago and may be only distantly related to other crows.
5. What does the ʻalalā eat?
The diet of the ʻalalā includes over 30 species of native fruits. Having fruit as a main part of its diet sets it apart from other crows and ravens. It is an important seed disperser for native plants. An omnivore, the ʻalalā also eats insects, as well as eggs and nestlings of other birds. Its diet also includes nectar, flowers, and dead animals.
6. What do the calls of the ʻalalā sound like?
By far the loudest bird in the Hawaiian forest, it can make incredible human-like cries, screams and moans. At least 34 different calls were recorded in the wild.
7. Is the ʻalalā found only in Hawaiʻi?
Yes, the ʻalalā is endemic to Hawaiʻi Island, meaning it is found nowhere else on earth and arrived here without the help of humans.
8. What color is the ʻalalā? What are its feathers like?
It is dark brown to black. It has small bristly feathers that extend part way down its bill. This is a distinct part of its features.
9. How can you tell apart a male and female ʻalalā?
Males and females look very similar, and it is hard to tell them apart just by appearance. Males are usually slightly heavier than females.
1. What is the historical range of the ʻalalā?
In the past, it was recorded that ʻalalā lived in dry and semi-dry forests in South Kohala, Kona, Kaʻū and into Puna at 1,000-8,200 feet in elevation. These forests are on the slopes of Hualālai and Mauna Loa volcanoes.
2. Is the ʻalalā still found in the wild?
No, it is extinct in the wild due to a variety of threats. Today the ʻalalā is only found in captive breeding programs managed by the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.
3. What is the timeline of the decline of the ʻalalā population in the wild?
1890s – found throughout its historic range
1900s – declines already observed
1950s – only small areas of historical range
1976 – only 76 birds, 3,000 – 6,000 ft. el., 4 areas: Hualālai, Hōnaunau, Honomalino, Kaʻū Forest Reserve
1991/1992 – 1 at Hualālai, 12 at Hōnaunau/McCandless Ranch
2002 – last pair observed
4. When were the last ʻalalā seen in the wild?
A single pair of ʻalalā was last observed in 2002 in South Kona. There have been no other confirmed sightings of ʻalalā in the wild since then.
5. Why did the ʻalalā go extinct in the wild?
There were a variety of threats that contributed to the decline of the ʻalalā in the wild. Predators such as feral cats, mongoose and rats can eat ʻalalā eggs and chicks. Like other forest birds, ‘alalā can get sick from avian malaria and pox carried by mosquitoes, as well as from toxoplasmosis carried by feral cats. Forests that ‘alalā once called home have been changed by ranching and logging. Hoofed animals like cattle, sheep and pigs can munch and trample understory plants. Due to the loss of trees and understory shrubs, ‘alalā have less food to eat and limited cover to hide from predators.
6. What role did ʻalalā play in the ecosystems where it lived?
It was an important seed disperser for many native plants in both dry and wet-forest ecosystems. It ate the fruits of these plants, flew to another location, and left behind the seeds that had passed through its digestive tract. Without the ʻalalā, these native plants can have a harder time spreading and reproducing.
7. What type of habitat did the ʻalalā live in?
ʻAlalā lived in a mid-elevation belt of dry forest and semi-dry forests of ʻōhiʻa and koa on Mauna Loa and Hualālai. These native forests had a lot of fruiting plants in the understory. The large amount of understory shrubs provided food and cover from to hide from predators.
1. When was the ʻalalā first brought into captivity for breeding?
In the 1970s, a handful of birds was brought into captivity for breeding purposes.
2. Who manages the captive breeding program today?
Today, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP), a program of San Diego Zoo Global, manages the captive breeding program. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife, and San Diego Zoo Global oversee captive breeding and reintroduction activities.
3. How many ʻalalā are there today?
There are currently 113 ʻalalā as of 2014. They are housed at the Keauhou and Maui Bird Conservation Centers. One bird lives at the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park because it is imprinted and genetically valuable, so researchers are attempting to collect sperm for artificial insemination.
4. How many founders are there for the population that exists today?
There are 9 genetic founders. This small number of genetic founders has created a genetic “bottleneck,” and a result there is low genetic diversity in the population today.
5. Why are the ʻalalā chicks hand-reared?
Hand-rearing results in increased reproduction because staff can care for chicks while the female takes care of an additional clutch. Also, some females are poor parents and thus staff are able to raise chicks to ensure they are healthy.
6. Do the ʻalalā ever get to raise their own chicks?
Yes, in 2013 two females, Pōmāhina and Lōliʻi, were allowed to raise their own chicks. In 2014, Pōmahina once again was allowed to parent-rear, this time with her male partner. This was the first time a breeding pair has raised its own chick since the ʻalalā went extinct in the wild. The birds that are allowed to parent-rear have shown good nesting and sitting behaviors, and their genetics are already well-represented in the population. (Therefore their reproduction success is not as critical.)
7. Why are the eggs taken away from the female?
Eggs are taken from the female for three reasons. First, this allows staff to conduct incubation and hand-rearing in case the female does not incubate her egg or feed her chick properly. Second, staff can also assist with the hatching process in case a chick does not hatch properly. Third, the female will “double-clutch,” which means when eggs are removed from the nest, the female thinks her first set of eggs didn’t survive, so she will lay another set of eggs. This increases reproduction in captivity.
8. How long does it take for an egg to hatch?
Females incubate, or sit on the eggs, for 19-23 days.
9. When do juveniles fledge?
ʻAlalā fledge, meaning they are able to fly, when they are about 45 days old. However, they are not very good flyers at first, and they depend on their parents for up to 8 months in the wild.
10. At what age do ʻalalā begin to reproduce?
In captivity, females can reproduce starting at about 2 years old, while males start reproducing between 2-4 years old.
11. How are mating pairs chosen?
In captivity, behavioral compatibility is a big part of choosing mating pairs. Pairs are also chosen to maximize genetic diversity in the population. In the wild, ʻalalā are monogamous and have long-term pair bonds.
12. What are some of the difficulties of breeding ʻalalā in captivity?
Each mating pair needs its own aviary; many potential mates end up being incompatible; infertile eggs are common; males sometimes interfere with egg laying and incubation. Also, it seems that inbreeding is affecting fertility and successful reproduction of some pairs.
1. Will the ʻalalā be released back into the wild?
Yes, The ʻAlalā Project, a joint project between the State of Hawaiʻi DLNR-DOFAW, USFWS, and San Diego Zoo Global, is preparing for the reintroduction of the ʻalalā back into the wild.
2. When will the releases begin?
The releases will begin in fall 2016. Currently, the required infrastructure and staff are being put in place. Releases are anticipated to occur for at least five years once they begin.
3. Where will the ʻalalā be released?
The first releases will be in the Puʻu Makaʻala Natural Area Reserve. The site is located near Keauhou Forest, owned by Kamehameha Schools. The Kūlani-Keauhou area has been managed for many years to promote native forests, is fenced and free of ungulates (cows, pigs, sheep, etc.), has a dense understory, and lots of ʻalalā food plants. The Kaʻū Forest Reserve is the second-best area for release, and it is hoped that releases will begin there after more management for promoting native forest habitat has occurred.
4. What are the goals of the reintroduction?
The long-term goal is to establish a wild self-sustaining population of ʻalalā. The wild ʻalalā will play their ecological roles in the native forest ecosystem. The population will need little help from humans to survive.
5. Are there enough birds in captivity to consider a release without threatening the population?
Yes, an average of 15 offspring per year can be produced in captivity, which means there will be a sustainable source of birds for release.
6. How many birds will be released?
Most likely, 12 birds will be released in 2016. They will be divided into two groups of six each. The first group will be hatched out earlier and released first. The second group will be released a few months later.
7. At what age will the birds be released?
In 2016, the birds all will be hatched out several months before the release. They will be transferred to the release aviary at about 6 months old and released at about 8 months old.
8. Will the same number and type of birds be released every year?
The number of birds released each year depends on the productivity of the captive breeding population. Many factors play into deciding which birds will be released in a given year, including age, rearing type (puppet vs. parent), sex ratio, relatedness, and behavior. The effects of each factor on post-release survival will be carefully observed and the resulting information used to help form future release groups.
9. What type of support will the birds have before and after they are released?
The birds will be held in a large flight aviary at the release site for several months before release. This is called a soft release, as they will have time to get used to their new home environment. While in the aviary, they will be cared for, fed, and monitored by project staff. After release, they will continue to get supplemental feeding and close monitoring. The area around the release site will receive intensive predator control.
10. Will anything be done to help the ʻalalā avoid ʻio, their natural predator who proved to be a problem in past releases?
‘Alalā will be trained before they are released to recognize ‘Io as predators and to respond appropriately by taking evasive action, such as seeking shelter in dense understory vegetation. Anti-predator behaviors in wild animals can be lost after only a few generations in captivity, so the remaining ‘alalā likely have retained little or no learned predator avoidance behavior. A post-doctoral researcher with the San Diego Zoo Global team will be designing the predator-avoidance training.
11. What will it take to have a successful reintroduction of ʻalalā into the wild?
A successful reintroduction will require habitat management, predator control, management of captive ʻalalā, release of birds, and post-release monitoring. This will happen over at lease five years. A big part of a successful reintroduction relies on public support, outreach, and education.
12. What can be learned in order to improve release strategies?
Due to the ʻalalā being extinct in the wild and having a small population size, as well as limited experience with releasing ʻalalā, there is a lot to learn about what will work best in terms of release success. A post-doctoral researcher will be looking into important release success factors such as the make-up of cohorts, movements, food plant preferences, predator avoidance, disease, and reproductive activities.
13. Have there been any attempts to reintroduce captive-reared ʻalalā in the past?
Yes, in the 1990s ʻalalā were released in south Kona but failed to establish a self-sustaining wild population. That attempt provided many important lessons that will help with the success of upcoming reintroduction efforts.
1. What does ʻalalā mean in Hawaiian?
ʻAlalā translates from Hawaiian as: “to bawl, bleat, squeal, cry; the Hawaiian Crow; a talkative person; and a style of chanting.” ʻAlalā is also a term for: a style of chant used to further project ones voice; a messenger in battle who calls out a chief’s commands to his warriors; a cry of a baby. 2. How are ʻalalā viewed in Hawaiian culture?
ʻAlalā are highly regarded in Hawaiian culture. It was kept as a ceremonial pet, and it is regarded as ʻaumakua, or family guardian spirit.
3. How did Hawaiians use ʻalalā as a natural resource?
ʻAlalā feathers were used to decorate statues and kahili. The birds were caught by poles or snares. Their flesh also was eaten.
4. What do the ʻalalā symbolize in Hawaiian culture?
Their dark color represents unpredictable things. If an ʻalalā was seen or heard upon entering a place, this was seen as a warning sign to not continue on. ʻAlalā are associated with ʻanāʻanā (Hawaiian dark magic).
Banko, P.C., D.L. Ball, W.E. Banko. 2002. Hawaiian Crow (Corvus hawaiiensis). Number 648 in The Birds of North America (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2009. Revised Recovery Plan for the ʻAlalā (Corvus hawaiiensis). Portland, Oregon. xiv + 105 pages.
VanderWerf, E.A., R.A. Switzer, A.A. Lieberman, and R.R. Swaisgood. 2013. ʻAlalā Restoration Plan. Pacific Rim Conservation and San Diego Zoo Global. September 2013.