March 2021

'Alalā

For those unfamiliar with it, the idea of a Hawai'ian Crow might seem strange. Why would a bird of North America's agricultural fields and suburban grasslands be found on a tropical archipelago 2000 miles from the mainland? Because it isn't the same bird, is the simple answer. And its unfamiliarity is most likely the result of its present-day rarity, though it was well-known to the ancient Polynesian inhabitants of the islands, who gave it the name 'Alalā, often translated as "The Screamer", for manifest reasons. The last wild pair was found on the slopes of Mauna Loa in 2002.

21st Century birders will have a hard time adding this species to their lifelists, despite a captive breeding and release program, because the four surviving birds out of the thirty most recently released have had to be recaptured for their protection, according to an Audubon Magazine[1] report in October 2020. The breeding program through the Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources[2] continues, however, with the hope of future releases, and with the assistance of the San Diego Zoo.

In the meantime, those who seek this charismatic species (just listen to these vocalizations[3]!) will have to be content with a "Virtual Lifelist", or one which allows the inclusion of captive birds when they are being protected and bred for release to prevent or counteract extinction in the wild. Although there is an excellent, detailed discussion of several programs in a recent post by Bird Life International[4], there are in fact nearly a dozen such efforts currently underway globally, supported by agencies, organizations, and private funding. The California Condor reintroduction is the paradigm here.

The current list includes 'Alalā (Hawai'i), Philippine eagle (guess where), Spotted Owl (N. America), Prairie Chicken (N. America), Helmeted Honeyeater (Australia), Orange-bellied Parrot (Australia), Crested Ibis (Asia), Houbara (Africa/Asia), Mauritius Kestrel (Africa), Black Stilt (New Zealand), and Guam Rail. The Rail project is already considered a partial success, which should bring cheer to traditional listers, among others.

There is a very serious side to this issue, of course, for species extinction is the "canary in the coal mine", if you will, for the cumulative effects of pollution, habitat destruction, and climate degradation. Birds can no more fly away from the existential threats they face than humans can. Unlike them, however, we have great power over the environment, and that includes attempts like these to mitigate damage already done. Covid-19 may impede us from hopping a jet to Hawai'i hoping to add an 'Alalā to our life list (this reviewer is a corvid-ophile and would love to do that), but when we can virtually visit[5] (a Favorite) the Project on Vimeo - and experience similar online resources for the other species mentioned above - perhaps it's not a complete disaster if we donate our ticket money instead to one of these dedicated breeding and reintroduction initiatives.