story by Ashley Stepanek
photo by Susan Middleton and David Littschwager
The ‘alala may at first glance resemble its midnight-black North American cousins, but there are some readily identifiable differences: While its bill and legs are characteristically inky, the Hawaiian crow has a slightly duller, charcoal-colored body, brown-tinged wings and stiff, web-like throat feathers. Endemic to Hawai‘i island—that is, found nowhere else in the world—it is also considered one of the rarest birds on the planet: At present, there are only two ‘alala known to exist in the wild.
Listed as an endangered species since 1967, the bird is clearly on the verge of extinction. But all is not lost: In 1989, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service instituted the Hawaiian Endangered Bird Conservation Program, a partnership between the San Diego Zoo, the feds, the state of Hawai‘i and the private sector, to manage a pair of breeding facilities on Maui and the Big Island. Scientists are currently working hard to raise ‘alala numbers in captivity, with the hope of one day releasing them into a protected, natural habitat. And it’s working: They now have fifty-two birds.
The HEBCP staff shares and exchanges the birds to produce the best mating pairs according to age, genetics, behavior, physical condition, breeding history and compatibility. Having two facilities protects the population from weather, fire and diseases, so they “don’t put all of their eggs in one basket,”
as Alan Lieberman, the program director, puts it.
According to Lieberman, the ‘alala court in April, lay eggs in May, and hatch through June and July.
“When we get an egg from a genetically valuable pair, when we see the spot of life in the first day or fourth, it’s like gold,” says Lieberman. It is this passion that will eventually grow the population to seventy-five, the magic number for the ‘alala’s re-introduction into the wild. “By the end of the decade,” he laughs, “hopefully I can retire.”