First Nesting Behavior of Released ʻAlalā Observed

(Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve, Hawai‘i) – Two ‘alalā living in the Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve have reached a new milestone—one not seen in the forests of Hawaiʻi for almost 20 years. These critically endangered birds, members of a species of native Hawaiian crow that went extinct in the wild nearly a quarter century ago, have built a nest.

The ʻalalā are among the birds that have been hatched and reared at the Keauhou and Maui Bird Conservation Centers of San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawai’i Endangered Bird Conservation Program, in a partnership with the State of Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DLNR/DOFAW) and the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service. Over the past two years, partners in The ʻAlalā Project have released a total of 21 birds into protected forest areas on the island of Hawaiʻi.

In early April 2019, researchers observed two birds, Mana’olana and Manaiakalani, beginning to build a nest platform structure near the site where they were released in 2017. Recently the female, Manaiakalani, began what appears to be sitting behavior on this nest structure.

“While it’s difficult to see exactly what’s in the nest from observations on the ground, we do believe that Manaiakalani is likely sitting on eggs—and we’ve observed her male partner, Mana’olana, bringing her food regularly,” said Alison Greggor, Ph.D., postdoctoral research associate, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. ʻAlalā typically lay between three and five eggs, and incubate them for an average of 21 days. If these eggs hatch, the chicks would be the first ʻalalā hatched in the wild in two decades.

As exciting as this development is, biologists caution that many factors may impact the success of this first nest. First-time parents are not ususally successful, and it is not uncommon for birds in the wild to make several attempts before they can successfully fledge their chicks.

Another formed pair, Kia’ikūmokuhāli’i and Ola, have been seen placing sticks in the nook of an ʻŌhiʻatree. Although the structure was not yet large enough to call a nesting platform, Greggor said it is encouraging to see the beginning of nesting behavior by at least two pairs of ʻalalā.

This breeding attempt is the first made by these released birds. Since there are no adult ʻalalā in the wild to learn from, the reintroduced birds have had to learn how to build nests, breed and incubate, also guided by instincts.

“While these are exciting and encouraging steps in the reintroduction process of ʻalalā, the journey is far from over,” said Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, The ʻAlalā Project coordinator and a wildlife biologist with DLNR/DOFAW. “There are many stages in the process, before the young fledge; the pair encounters natural and introduced threats, as well as environmental challenges. The team tries to help nesting birds as much as possible without causing disturbance.” Currently, team members are monitoring the nest discreetly, from a distance, and documenting observations of the behaviors of Manaʻolana and Manaiakalani.

“Hawaiian forests are family; there is a shared ancestry among the people, plants, animals and landscapes,” said Rachel Kingsley, education and outreach associate, The ʻAlalā Project. “By returning the ʻalalā to the wild, we are welcoming home a family member that has been away for a long time. The fact that these birds have been able to build a nest on their own shows that these birds are comfortable in the forest (where) they live. Our family is growing.”

The outcome of this nesting will help to guide future reintroduction efforts for the ʻalalā. The next release of birds, scheduled for later in 2019, is currently being finalized.

“Regardless of the success of this particular nest, the fact that there is a nest at all is an encoraging and inspiring milestone in the long-term success of this project,” said Michelle D. Bogardus, Maui Nui and Hawaiʻi Island team manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The ʻAlalā Project is a partnership between major partners of the State of Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and San Diego Zoo Global. The project is working to establish a self-sustaining, wild population of ʻAlalā that fulfills its roles (ecological, cultural, etc.).