‘Ōlapa for the ʻAlalā

Have you ever heard of ‘farm-to-table’, the trendy movement towards eating locally sourced food? Well, here at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) we like to treat our birds to ‘forest-to-food-pan’! Our facility is located in Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii and surrounding our aviary buildings is a beautiful regenerating Hawaiian rain forest. Lucky for the ʻalalā it is bursting with several bird-friendly fruits!

One item on the menu is ōlapa Cheirodendron trigynum. It is a medium-sized tree commonly found in the rain forest’s understory, often growing as an epiphyte on other trees like the ‘ōhi’a—the dominant tree of the forest. Ōlapa is an endemic species, meaning it can’t be found anywhere else in the world except for Hawaii.

The leaves of ōlapa remind some people of the quaking aspens Populus tremuloides on the US mainland. That’s because at the end of the ōlapa’s long, bendy stems hang large oval-shaped leaves. These leaves constantly flutter gracefully even with the slightest breeze—as if they are the hula dancers of the rain forest. When you pause and listen to the sound from the moving leaves, the “lapping” noise will clue you into the onomatopoeia aspect of its name. The leaves are a distinctive bright green color and easily stand out against the drab, dark green ‘ōhi’a leaves.

While the tree is absolutely gorgeous, collecting the berries is a rather amusing chore. This tree offers no low hanging fruit! In order to cause as little harm as possible to the tree we make use of a tool we like to call the berry picker. It’s a telescopic tree-pruning tool that—by way of a pulley system—allows us to delicately pick just the berries, leaving the rest of the tree intact.


The author with the berry picker and a bundle of berries.

The berries of the ōlapa tree are a very dark purple, almost black in color. Crushing the fruit between your fingers releases a dark wine colored juice with a sharp, peppery fragrance. The fruit is enjoyed by several Hawaiian forest birds such as ʻōmaʻo, a native thrush, and in the past ʻōʻō and ʻōʻū, two honeycreepers that are unfortunately extinct.

A bird you might not expect to enjoy ‘ōlapa is the ʻalalā Corvus hawaiiensis (also known as the Hawaiian crow). The ʻalalā are Hawaii’s largest frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds. They are very important to native seed dispersal, but unfortunately for the last 20 years or so the ʻalalā have been unable to do their job as fruit movers of the forest. Habitat loss, non-native predators such as feral cats, and diseases such as avian pox and avian malaria are some of the factors that led to the ʻalalā’s decline. At the moment they are currently extinct in the wild and only 114 individuals reside in managed care through San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.

The team at KBCC do their best to give the ʻalalā at the center as many native fruits as possible. Not only is it good for the birds, it’s also great staff enrichment! Watching the ʻalalā voraciously eat the native berries is one of the most rewarding parts of my day. It’s as if they instinctively know that the berries are a great snack. They quickly and daintily pick off the berries one by one. Seeing this triggers daydreams of one day watching wild ʻalalā forage for ‘ōlapa in the forest. Until then, ‘forest-to-food pan’ is a great way to enrich the ʻalalā in our care. My hope is that instead of ‘forest-to-food pan’, the new trend will just be ‘forest-to… forest’!

Please enjoy this short video clip of a young female ʻalalā who seems to enjoy eating the ‘ōlapa berries just as much as I did filming her!