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Alala to be released into the wild later this year

February 28, 2016 - 1:30am

HILO — It’s almost time for the alala to once again spread its wings over Hawaii Island’s forests.

Hawaii’s last remaining native crow species, extinct in the wild for about 14 years, will begin to be released from a captive breeding program this September, with a dozen in all to be offered freedom by year’s end to seed what biologists hope will be their comeback.

“The ultimate goal is a self-sustaining wild population of birds,” said John Vetter, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. “We expect that will take a number of years. It depends how successful we are.”

Success is not guaranteed.

The birds, which forage in undergrowth, face a number of threats in the wild, including feral cats, mongooses and rats. The io, or Hawaiian hawk, also is a known predator.

An earlier attempt to release alala in South Kona in the 1990s proved unsuccessful because the birds became susceptible to disease and predation. Of the 27 captive-raised juvenile birds that were released, 21 died and the remaining six were recaptured.

Vetter said the state hopes for better success this time around, with a larger breeding program and plans to release the birds in the Puu Makaala Natural Area Reserve near Volcano.

He said the area is fenced to keep ungulates out, allowing for a more mature undergrowth, which the alala rely.

“We think that will help alala with escape routes for io,” Vetter said. There also might be fewer threats for juveniles from non-native predators.

South Kona was selected previously because there were known wild birds in the area at the time, he said. No wild alala have been seen since 2002.

The captive birds — 114 in all — are raised at the Keauhou and Maui bird conservation centers, operated by the San Diego Zoo. The birds that will be released haven’t yet hatched.

The younger alala will hopefully have a better chance of surviving in the wild, Vetter said. But to be sure they can adjust, the juveniles will spend several months in a large aviary.

They also will be given some food and tracked with GPS devices once released.

“We’re going to be constantly learning as we rely on the birds to figure out what works best,” he said.

Vetter said reintroduction of alala has been mapped out for the next five years, with 12 planned to be released each year.

The program will cost $800,000 for the first year and $400,000 to $500,000 a year after that, he said. Funding is provided from federal and state sources, with contributions from the zoo, Vetter said.

“We’re pretty much ready to go for the first year or two,” he said.

Vetter said reintroducing the species is important both ecologically and culturally.

“They eat a lot of fruit; they are seed dispersers for a lot of native trees,” he said, adding they also are Haumakua for some Big Island families.

Interested in hearing more about the reintroduction plan and the bird’s history? Jackie Gaudioso-Levita of the Alala Recovery Project will host a presentation at 6:30 p.m. March 14 at the Mountain View Library, 18-1235 Volcano Highway. The event is free.

Email Tom Callis at