Wondering how long ʻAlalā live? Want to learn more about the conservation breeding program?
Below is a list of Frequently Asked Questions and answers all about ʻAlalā.
They are organized by subject: Physical Traits, History, Conservation Breeding, Current Reintroduction Efforts, and Cultural Connections.
Click on each menu to see FAQs for each subject. You can also find a few short videos answering some of our frequently asked questions here: https://vimeo.com/album/5392894
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 than the American Crow, 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 might be only distantly related to other crows. The most recent research shows that the closest genetic relative of the ʻAlalā is the Rook. The ‘Alalā is the only survivor of five corvid species that evolved in the Hawaiian Islands (the other four species disappeared before Western contact).
5. What does the ʻAlalā eat? The diet of the ʻAlalā includes over 30 species of native fruits. Having fruit as the 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, 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 very dark brown to black, and the feathers are dull, not glossy. It has small bristly feathers that extend partway 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? Through the fossil record, we know that there were up to five different corvid species found within the Hawaiian Islands. ʻAlalā are the only remaining member of this family. In the past, it was recorded that ʻAlalā lived in dry and semi-dry forests in South Kohala, Kona, Kaʻū and into Puna districts on Hawaiʻi Island 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? Today most of the ʻAlalā are found in conservation breeding programs managed by the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. With ongoing release efforts, a small population is being established on Hawaiʻi island.
3. What is the timeline for the decline of the ʻAlalā population in the wild? 1890s – found throughout its historic range 1900s – declines already observed 1950s – birds found in only small areas of their 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 1993-1999 – First reintroduction efforts conducted in South Kona (McCandless Ranch) 2002 – the last pair observed in the wild
4. When was the last pair of 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 primarily lived in a mid-elevation belt of dry forest and semi-dry forests of ʻŌhiʻa and Koa. These native forests had a lot of fruiting plants in the understory. This large amount of understory shrubs provided food and cover to hide from predators. They also moved up and down the mountain slopes to track the seasonal availability of native fruits.
1. When was the ʻAlalā first brought into facilities for conservation breeding? In the 1970s, a handful of birds were brought into facilities for the purposes of conservation breeding.
2. Who manages the conservation breeding program today? Today, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) manages the conservation breeding program. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife, and San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance oversee conservation breeding and reintroduction activities.
3. How many ʻAlalā are there today? As of 2020, there are currently more than 110 ʻAlalā. They are housed at the Keauhou and Maui Bird Conservation Centers.
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.”
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 help to raise the chicks to ensure they are healthy.
6. Do the ʻAlalā ever get to raise their own chicks? Yes, some birds in the conservation breeding program participate in “parent-rearing,” and are able to raise ʻAlalā chicks in the nest. In 2013, the program had its first success with parent-rearing, and each year since has seen additional successes. 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 at the facilities.
8. How long does it take for an egg to hatch? Females incubate, or sit on the eggs, for 20-25 days.
9. When do juveniles fledge? ʻAlalā fledge, start 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 conservation breeding facilities, 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 conservation breeding facilities, 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 at the facilities? Each mating pair needs its own aviary because they are territorial; 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 the successful reproduction of some pairs.
13. Are there any opportunities to visit the birds at KBCC/MBCC? Currently, both the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center and the Maui Bird Conservation Centers are closed to the public. In the past, they have hosted an annual Open House Event. Due to Covid19 restrictions, we are not hosting an open house event this year. We will advertise when this is a possibility again. In 2021 the Panaʻewa Zoo in Hilo, HI opened a new exhibit where two ʻAlalā are housed.
1. What partners are implementing ʻAlala reintroduction efforts? The ʻAlalā Project, is a joint project between the major partners of State of Hawaiʻi DLNR-DOFAW, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, in addition to partners, Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project, Three Mountain Alliance, National Park Service, Kamehameha Schools, The University of Hawai’i, and U.S. Geological Survey. Together, they are currently implementing the reintroduction of the ʻAlalā back into the wild.
2. Where will the ʻAlalā be released during the current reintroduction efforts? How are the sites determined where the releases occur? The releases that occurred between 2016-2019 were conducted within the Puʻu Makaʻala Natural Area Reserve on Hawaiʻi Island. This site is owned and managed by the State of Hawaiʻi and is located near Keauhou Kaʻū, 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. At the moment no future release locations have been chosen. The next releases are proposed to be somewhere within Maui Nui to decrease the threat of predation from ʻIo. The Kaʻū Forest Reserve is also a high-priority release area for the future, and it is hoped that releases will begin there after more management for promoting native forest habitat has occurred and more information about ʻIo habitat use has been gathered. The ʻAlalā Working Group uses a quantitative site selection process where all factors that may increase the success of the species’ establishment are considered. Examples of some of these factors are “available nesting habitat”, “risk of introduced diseases”, and “food availability”. The group of experts meets and weights and ranks each factor under a consensus. This is how optimal release areas are narrowed down, and sites within release areas are selected. Looking into the future, the project will consider other release areas on Hawaii Island and use this process to select release areas island-wide.
3. What are the goals of the reintroduction? The long-term goal is to establish a wild self-sustaining population of ʻAlalā. Wild ʻAlalā will fulfill their ecological roles that are integral to the native Hawaiian ecosystem and culture.
4. Are there enough birds in the facilities to consider a release without threatening the population? Yes, an average of 15 offspring per year can be produced at the conservation breeding facilities, which means there will be a sustainable source of birds for release.
5. How many birds will be released? The release strategy is developed to be adaptable for each release site. The goal for the releases within Puʻu Makaʻala was to release about 12 birds each year. Future releases may have a similar goal.
6. At what age will the birds be released? The birds that are released may vary in age, but for the first rounds of releases, they will all be juveniles (under 2 years old.) ʻAlalā do not reach breeding age until 2-4 years of age. The reasons for releasing younger birds include that they will have spent less time in breeding facilities and will be less habituated to that kind of environment. Younger birds are also more curious about their environment and may adapt easier to living in the wild. Since they will not be of breeding age, they will not have territories yet, and they will be more likely to develop social cohesion within the cohort. Also, in reintroductions of other bird species, younger birds tend to do better.
7. How will the birds learn behaviors and foraging without an adult mentor or parent? Before ʻAlalā are released, they are socialized as a group, meaning they are placed in the same aviary and interact together. Juveniles that are grouped together in this way develop a “social hierarchy,” where an alpha bird will emerge. This alpha bird is usually the first to try new activities and can help others learn new behaviors. In a future release, IF an adult pair is released alongside juveniles, they will serve as mentors for the younger birds once they are released. Also, the release birds that have been parent-reared may learn some behaviors from being raised by adult birds.
8. How will you determine which individuals and how many will be released each year? The number of birds released each year depends on the productivity of the conservation breeding population and the resources available at the release location. 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 conditioning 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 receive supplemental food. Field staff will conduct intensive monitoring and behavioral observations. The lightweight VHF transmitters that are attached to each bird will allow the field staff to accurately track and determine the locations of each bird in real-time. The area around the release site will receive intensive predator control for small mammals known to predate birds and their eggs, as well as small mammals that may carry diseases known to threaten the survival of ‘Alalā.
10. How long will birds wear the transmitters for? Could wearing the transmitters handicap the ʻAlalā or hinder normal behavior? ʻAlalā will wear the transmitters for at least one year to allow the field team to track and monitor their movements. It is integral to the success of the reintroduction to understand the locations and behaviors of the released birds frequently. The transmitter devices weigh less than 5% of each bird’s body weight, and this is a standard that was developed based on many studies that show this amount of weight will not negatively affect the movements or behaviors of birds. This standard is used across other bird monitoring projects as well.
11. Will anything be done to help ʻAlalā avoid ‘Io, their natural predator who proved to be a problem in past releases? ʻAlalā are trained before they are released to recognize ʻIo as predators. Anti-predator behaviors in wild animals can be lost after only a few generations in facilities, so the remaining ʻAlalā may have retained little or no learned predator avoidance behavior. A post-doctoral researcher with the San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) team has designed and implemented anti-predator training. The ʻAlalā Project consulted with two reintroduction specialists in order to obtain input on the protocol development of the anti-predator training. Behavioral observations are being conducted daily and through these observations, it is believed that the birds do identify ʻIo as a predator. Since being released the birds have displayed avoidance behaviors towards ʻIo and produced alarm vocalizations. In addition to the anti-predator training, ʻIo surveys are being conducted at the release site to get a better understanding of the number and location of ʻIo in the area. Puʻu Makaʻala NAR does have a lower density ʻIo population than other parts of Hawaiʻi Island.
12. Have there been any attempts to reintroduce ʻAlalā in the past? Yes, from 1993-1999, ʻAlalā were released in South Kona but failed to establish a self-sustaining wild population. During these releases, the leading cause of mortality was predation by ‘Io, followed by infection with toxoplasmosis. This attempted release provided many important lessons that will help with the success of upcoming reintroduction efforts.
13. When did the current release efforts begin? Strategic planning of the current releases has been underway for close to a decade. The latest releases began in December of 2016 with the release of five birds. Unfortunately, there were three mortalities shortly after the release, and the remaining two birds were brought back into an aviary. The ʻAlalā Project began to implement a new release strategy that addressed the challenges that were faced in the 2016 release. Releases continued through 2019. In 2020, after increased mortality, the remaining birds were recaptured and returned to the conservation breeding program.
14. What was determined as the cause of death for each of the three birds from the 2016 release? What was the cause(s) of death for the birds in 2020? Necropsy (autopsy for animals) results showed the following: Two of the birds most likely died due to trauma caused by attacks by ʻIo (Hawaiian hawk). The cause of death for the third bird was poor condition due to a lack of fat stores. All three carcasses were recovered from the release site necropsies were performed by veterinarians on each carcass, which included clinical testing for a wide variety of diseases and careful physical examination. There were a variety of causes for the increased mortalities in 2020. One of the biggest was the increased depredation by ʻIo.
15. Why were the implemented actions not sufficient/able to prevent mortalities? Although steps were carefully designed and implemented to address potential threats to released ʻAlalā, there are many factors involved that can affect survival and reintroduction success when reintroducing any species to the wild. There is always uncertainty regarding the outcomes of any release. Releasing ʻAlalā without the benefit of experienced ʻAlalā already in the wild is very challenging. Although the three mortalities so soon after release was a challenging outcome, much was learned from the 2016 release. The ʻAlalā Project identified challenges and areas needing improvement in the release strategy moving forward.
16. How will the causes of death be addressed in the future to better prepare released ‘Alalā for surviving in the wild? A combined approach will continue to be used to help reduce the threat of ʻIo predation in the future. Anti-predator training was updated and intensified based on input from reintroduction and anti-predator training experts. Further ʻIo studies are being done to better understand their use of habitat across the landscape. The next release efforts will be conducted within Maui Nui which will decrease the threat of ʻIo predation.
17. 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, knowledge gaps exist in terms of release success. Members of the ‘Alalā Project will continue looking into important release success factors such as the make-up of cohorts, movements, food plant preferences, predator avoidance, disease, and reproductive activities.
18. When is the next release scheduled to happen? We are currently in the process of working towards the next release effort.
19. What will it take to have a successful reintroduction of ʻAlalā into the wild? A successful reintroduction will require habitat management, predator control, successful application of predator avoidance training, management of ʻAlalā at the breeding facilities, the release of birds, and post-release monitoring. This reintroduction process will take a substantial amount of time. A big part of a successful reintroduction relies on public support, outreach, and education.
20. Did the volcanic activity affect the birds? The Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) was not in the path of the 2018 active lava flows that were a part of the East Rift Zone. All of the birds were monitored closely by staff and did not appear to be affected by the volcanic activity.
21. Can we visit the release area and see the birds? There are currently no birds in the wild.
22. Are there any opportunities to volunteer with the project? How can I be involved with this project? Currently, there are no volunteer opportunities directly with the ʻAlalā Project. We do partner with other organizations that occasionally have volunteer opportunities for activities such as planting of native plants. When we receive notification of these opportunities we will post them on our website under the news & events section and also on our social media accounts.
Some partner projects:
Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project: https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/restoremaunakea/how-you-can-help/
Three Mountain Alliance https://threemountainalliance.org/community/
Mailing List for Volunteer Opportunities with Nāpuʻu Conservation Project – click subscribe in the upper left-hand corner and you will have the opportunity to sign up for future events https://mailchi.mp/hawaii/join-us-for-volunteer-day-718-at-the-puu
23. How did the reintroduced ʻAlalā affect the other species within Puʻu Makaʻala? The ʻAlalā were seen foraging on many different species of native fruits within the NAR. Historically ʻAlalā were known to eat over 30 different species of native fruits but are considered an omnivore that will also eat insects as well as eggs and nestlings of other birds. Consumption of other bird eggs and nestlings is a part of their natural diet. The ʻAlalā also have a very loud voice and through the reintroduction efforts, they transformed the soundscape of Puʻu Makaʻala. It is currently unknown how this affected the other bird species that utilize this area, but bioacoustic studies were conducted that may help us learn about these interactions.
24. When do you consider the reintroduction efforts a success? There are many layers in the reintroduction process that would produce small milestones which we would consider successes. Some of these small successes include native foraging, natural habitat, and space use, forming natural social groups, and survival of released individuals. While all of these are small achievements the birds are making our overall goal would be the creation of a self-sustaining population of wild ʻAlalā. The reintroduction of a species, like most successful conservation efforts, is a process that takes time and patience. We will not know if we are meeting our goal until these birds start to show signs of breeding. Successful reintroduction efforts often depend a great deal on the amount of public support an effort receives. Conservation efforts where local communities work together with conservationists to combat extinction, reduce threats to species survival and support the protection of species tend to move much more quickly than efforts where the public is not involved. As the ʻAlalā return to their native habitat, it is critical that land managers, scientists, and community members work together as “ʻAlalā Ambassadors” ensuring that the birds have space, environment, and support they need to thrive.
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 one’s 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 was also 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.