Set down your pumpkin spice lattes for a moment and pick up a coconut instead. In many places around the world leaves are changing colors but here in Hawaii the leaves just as lush and green as ever. The Big Island might not seem like a very spooky place but I can assure you we still have stuff of Halloween folklore.
Imagine walking through a dark, misty rain forest when a silent shadow catches your eye. Passing over the tree tops dark wings wheel overhead. That’s when you start to hear strange sounds. Is that a baby crying? You hear it again, but this time is sounds more like the meow of a cat. What you are hearing is one of the many haunting calls of the ‘alalā, a very special corvid found nowhere else in the world except here in Hawaii.
Sadly, any calls you hear in the forest today are just a ghostly echo of the past. The ‘alalā are currently extinct in the wild and only exist in breeding facilities of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP). Rats that predated on nests and mosquitoes that carried fatal diseases were two of the villains that played a role in the ‘alalā’s demise. Instead of a diet consisting of mostly carrion like many mainland corvids, the ‘alalā, also known as the Hawaiian Crow, adapted to eating a wide variety of fruits and seeds. Although Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” and Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “Birds” might lead you to think crows are some sort of creature of ill omen, here in Hawaii that is not the case. The ‘alalā hold a special place in Hawaiian culture; they are considered ‘aumakua or familial guardians.
The good news is that, thanks to successful breeding in managed care, the ‘alalā are making a comeback with 112 adults alive today, which is up from roughly 20 birds at the lowest point in the 1990s. This is great news because these birds are too precious to lose forever. Not only are they important to Hawaiian culture, they are part of what makes these islands special and unique. They are also considered ‘ecological engineers’ of the forest because of the crucial role they play in dispersing and germinating the seeds of native plants in the forest.
In addition to their ecological and cultural importance, ‘alalā are spellbinding creatures in their own right, too. They are highly intelligent, so much so that we have a lot of fun trying to come up with new ways to keep them mentally stimulated in captivity. This year we brought Halloween to the ‘alalā. We gave out carved pumpkins and added nutritious and fun treats to them like live waxworms, one of the birds’ favorites. ‘Alalā can be a bit cautious about new items we put in their aviary but their inquisitive nature eventually takes over. Remember, without our help these amazing birds are in danger of becoming ghosts themselves. But with some help from us, we hope to have them haunt the Hawaiian forest for years to come.
Amy Kuhar is a research associate at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous blog, Oh Hello, Ohelo Berries!