Hawaiian Crow – A Ghost of Our Past

A “State of the Birds” report released by the US federal government  in partnership with several conservancy programs estimates that a third of the United States’ roughly 800 bird species are in danger. The report is, in a word, depressing. It is the summation of a slew of depressing bird censuses, which together encompass 40 years worth of data. US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the report “should be a call to action” (New York Times). Half of the shorebird species have declined over the last four decades, and birds that breed in grasslands have dropped 40%. Also in trouble: any native bird on the islands of Hawai’i (including the Hawaiian crow, shown at right), which are threatened not only by human encroachment but by an army of invasive species . The usual culprits are to blame: loss of habitat, pollution, etc. But one Associated Press article provides a bizarre spin on the report by pinning much of the blame on alternative energy efforts. True, the report does mention wind turbines, but to my quick read it looks like much more space is spent discussing the consequences of traditional energy pursuits, such as oil spills and mountaintop removal.

Hawaiian Crow

It is in the perceived paradise of Hawaii that birds have declined the most, the report said.

“More bird species are vulnerable to extinction in Hawaii than anywhere else in the United States,” according to the report.

Before humans arrived in the Hawaiian islands, possibly as early as the year 300, there were 113 bird species that occurred nowhere else on Earth. Since humans arrived, 71 species have gone extinct and 31 more are listed as threatened or endangered. The main culprits are new plant and animal species introduced into the Hawaiian ecosystem, said George Wallace of the American Bird Conservancy, who wrote the report’s section on Hawaii.

“Most Americans would be surprised that a place that we usually associate with being an idyllic paradise would have so many serious bird conservation problems,” Wallace said in a telephone interview.

“These types of isolated island flora and fauna tend to be very, very sensitive to introductions of foreign organisms.”

John Fitzpatrick of Cornell University went farther, calling Hawaii a “borderline ecological disaster” and “the epicenter of extinctions and near extinctions.”

A revised recovery plan for the critically endangered Hawaiian Crow, or Alalā (Corvus hawaiiensis), was released in mid-April  by the U.S. Fish and Wildife Service. The species is recognized as being one of the “world’s rarest forest birds.”

Alala - Giclee Print by Patrick Ching

Alala by Patrick Ching

“With the release of this recovery plan, we reach out to Big Island communities asking for their support in helping restore the alalā to its native forests,” said Patrick Leonard, field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office. “Wildlife does not recognize property lines or jurisdictional areas. Working together, we hope to bring this charismatic bird back to its rightful place in Hawai‘i.”

The plan calls for spending $14,380,000 to implement each of the recovery actions, with an ultimate goal of establishing multiple, self-sustaining populations on the island of Hawai’i – its historic range – that would allow the species to be removed from the list of endangered and threatened species.

More news on efforts to conserve the Alalā is available on the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Read our Hawaiian Crow feature here

[box]The Last of Their Kind
Cornell Lab’s expedition records last wild Alalas and other rare Hawaiian birds