Keeping Up With Kinohi – San Diego Zoo’s Rare Alala

This is Kinohi, an ‘alala (Hawaiian crow) hatched in captivity 20 years ago. Growing up, he lacked other crows to socialize with, and so he developed an unusual vocabulary. But while we may find his human-like babble amusing, there is nothing funny about the fact that he will not breed.

Kinohi was sent to the San Diego Zoo in 2009 so that Dr. Barbara Durrant, director of Reproductive Physiology at the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, and her staff could train him for semen collection. As one of only 60 ‘alala left in the world, Kinohi is very important to that population; unfortunately, he is behaviorally compromised and just does not get on with the ladies. His genes will be lost unless Dr. Durrant’s team intervenes. Their goal for the last year is to collect semen to artificially inseminate a compatible female.


Says Diane Van Dien, Research Technician working on the Kinohi project, “Working with Kinohi certainly is a challenge. Crows are very smart, and if we are not careful, he’ll end up training us instead of the other way around! Luckily, we have had the help of the keepers at both the HVMC and the Bird Breeding Center. They have shared their insights with us as well as making sure all of Kinohi’s needs are met, from food and water to appropriate perches and toys.

We’ve had to spend time getting to know Kinohi’s personality and gaining his trust. In the beginning, he would never sit still for long, and we felt successful if we had just one solid minute to pet him and left without any new bruises from his beak pounding on our ankles. But little by little we have seen Kinohi transform from an anxious bird, constantly hopping from perch to ground, to one who sits contentedly to get his head scratched. He now perches with his feathers so fluffed that he almost looks like a youngster, and he will even close his eyes while I rub his head feathers and Barbara pets his back and tail, abdomen and cloaca. (The cloaca is the one hole through which everything passes in a bird.) Eventually he sidles away, hops over to his cardboard box, and fusses with the grasses inside, mumbling to himself. Then we try to lure him back. When he cooperates, he gets one of his favorite treats: a piece of mouse or a waxworm. When he refuses to come back, the session is over.”

A Wild Alala

With only 70 known ‘alala left on the planet, Kinohi’s genes are extremely important. Diane continues:

“We like to think Kinohi looks forward to our visits. When we enter the anteroom to his new indoor-outdoor enclosure, he calls out, letting us know he knows we are there. As we cut up his mouse into a cup (the pieces are his reward for cooperating with us), Kinohi waits at the door, peering at our feet through the small space at the bottom. To position his eye low enough to see us, he hangs his head upside down, the top of his head resting on the floor.

Spring marks the beginning of the breeding season, and while the ‘alala in Hawaii have been building nests, Kinohi also has been responding to the lengthening daylight. A few weeks ago, he began saving part of his food reward in his beak. It is now his routine to pick up the pieces of mouse one by one, but after swallowing a few, he holds the rest in the back of his mouth. Then, when he has emptied the cup, he takes the morsels to the box that serves as his nest. We think he is trying to bring food to an imaginary mate. He mumbles in a whiny tone, moving the food pieces up and down over his tongue, giving his voice a gurgling quality. Eventually he leaves the nest box, lines up the pieces of mouse on a perch, and eats them one by one as though savoring each bite.”

We encourage our readers to get involved in supporting this cause as one of the most critical conservation efforts involving Crows currently underway.  Click here to view the conservation blog, or visit the main donation site.



Featured Creature: The ‘Alala (Hawaiian Crow)

Having spent my early childhood in Maui, Hawaiian wildlife is close to my heart.  I’ve grown up watching resorts spring up along the coasts, foothills cleared for cineplexes, and bird song grow ever quieter.  It is a reality which I hope never hits my current home of Zagreb, still bursting with chatter within our boreal dwellings.

The Alala, or Hawaiian Crow (Corvus hawaiiensis),  is sadly one of the most critically endangered birds in the world. It has suffered from the same threats that have caused the endangerment or extinction of many of Hawaii’s native forest birds–habitat destruction due to logging and agriculture, severe degradation of native plant life by introduced pigs, predation by introduced rats and mongoose, and avian diseases transmitted by introduced mosquitoes.

The Hawaiian Crow previously was found in wet ‘ohi’a-koa forest, scrub, and rangelands, but the few remaining birds are now restricted to high mountain forest. The species is omnivorous, but is especially fond of the fruit of native understory plants such as ieie. Hawaiian Crow is a rather secretive species, often detected first by its strange-sounding calls, but it can sometimes be seen flying high above the forest.


Literally ‘Alala means “to cry out loud.”  Their caw is very similar to that of continental crows. What sets the Alala apart from its Common Crow cousin  is a dark, sooty brown color, with paler feathers in the outer wing.

The breeding season of Hawaiian Crow stretches from March to July. The female lays one to five eggs, but with larger clutches, only two eggs survive. Hawaiian Crows are social birds with family groups, and these family groups remain together until young birds are old enough to feed themselves.

Hawaiian Crow was listed as a federally endangered species under the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1967. In 1989, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published the ‘Alala Recovery Plan. The goal of the plan was to increase the number of Hawaiian Crows in the wild to 400 individuals, thereby removing the bird from the endangered species list. The Zoological Society of San Diego runs a captive breeding program in Maui now, which has allowed 27 young crows to be introduced into the wild since 1993. Unfortunately, by October 1999, 21 of these captive-reared birds had died or disappeared due to disease, predation by Hawaiian Hawks, and other factors; the other six birds were brought back into captivity until more successful introductions can take place. To help protect existing Hawaiian Crow habitat, the Fish and Wildlife Service acquired 5,300 acres of land in 1997 and established the Kona Forest Unit of the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge.They have since published a new plan under the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office which begs community involvement to make this run a success.

What Can You Do?
The Endangered Species Act has helped protect the Hawaiian Crow and made it possible to learn critical information about its biology. Audubon continues to work to ensure that this vital legislation is being used to protect our publicly-owned wildlife resources. Check out http://www.audubon.org/campaign/ to learn of the latest news about the Endangered Species Act and how you can help. To learn more about other species protected under this legislation, visit: http://endangered.fws.gov/

U.S. National Wildlife Refuges provide essential habitat for the Hawaiian Crow, and a great number of other species throughout the U.S. and its territories. Unfortunately, the refuge system is often under-funded during the U.S. government’s budgeting process. To learn more about how you can help gain much needed funding for U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, visit: http://www.audubon.org/campaign/refuge_report/

'Alala KinohiRead the dramatic story of  Kinohi, the last wild ‘alala , who has finally found a place to call home-away-from-home here at the Wild Animal Park.

Training an Alala for an Important Job

References

[list]

  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2002). Threatened and Endangered Animals of the Hawaiian Islands.
  • BirdLife International (2000) Threatened Birds of the World. Barcelona and Cambridge, UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International.
  • BirdLife International (2006) Species factsheet: Corvus hawaiiensis, Hawaiian Crow
  • Goodwin, Derek, Crows of the World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976.
  • Pratt, H.D., P. L. Bruner, and D. G. Berrett. The Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
  • [/list]

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
Recounted By TIM BARKSDALE AND GREGORY BUDNEY
Cornell Lab’s expedition records last wild Alalas and other rare Hawaiian birds
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