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Manu Minute: The Clever ΄Alalā

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Ann Tanimoto-Johnson
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Hawaii Public Radio
The ΄alalā is a velvety black-brown are a hefty 1-1.2 lbs and are about 18-20 inches in length. They have a huge wingspan of 36-42 inches. They have a thick black bill and black legs and feet.

Let's be honest — a black crow is not a typical mascot for a tropical paradise. But the native 'alalā, or Hawaiian crow, is deeply intertwined with the ecosystem of Hawai'i.

'Alalā were once widespread on the slopes of Hualālai and Mauna Loa on Hawai'i Island. However, their numbers declined drastically in the 20th century. The last wild pair were seen in 2002, and they are considered extinct in the wild.

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Ann Tanimoto-Johnson / Keauhou Bird Conservation Center
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Keauhou Bird Conservation Center
Hawaiian crows are extremely intelligent and have been observed using "tools."

Today, they are one of the world’s rarest birds — a total of 132 'alalā remain at two breeding facilities in Hawai'i managed by the San Diego Zoo Global Institute for Conservation Research, the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) and the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) on Maui.

In 2017 and 2018, a number of birds were released into the wild on the slopes of Mauna Loa on Hawai'i Island in hopes of re-establishing a wild breeding population.

The 'alalā made some progress in the first two years, but then their numbers fell prey to another native species: the 'io, or Hawaiian hawk.  By late 2020, the last five wild birds were brought back into captivity.

Like the 'ōma'o, 'alalā served as seed dispersers of many native forest trees. Their disappearance further jeopardizes the stability of Hawai'i's native ecosystem.

'Alalā are incredibly intelligent — not only do they have a huge repertoire of vocalizations, but recent research has shown that 'alalā are one of the few avian species that are able to successfully “use tools” to get to retrieve food in hard-to-reach areas.

Like humans, 'alalā learn their songs from each other, and recent research has shown that their vocalizations have changed in the years since they have been in captivity. Some territorial calls that were once common in wild birds are no longer heard in captive ones.

Additionally, the newly-released wild birds seemed to be learning a new vocabulary, and for a brief couple years, the soundscape of a Hawaiian forest once again included the calls of the 'alalā.

To listen or read more about the birds of Hawai'i, check out our Manu Minute page.

Patrick Hart is the host of HPR's Manu Minute. He runs the Listening Observatory for Hawaiian Ecosystems (LOHE) Lab at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.
Ann Tanimoto-Johnson is the Lab Manager & Research Technician in the Hart Lab/Listening Observatory for Hawaiian Ecosystems (LOHE) Bioacoustics Lab. She researches the ecology, bioacoustics, and conservation of our native Hawaiian forests, birds, and bats.
Savannah Harriman-Pote is a producer for The Conversation and Manu Minute. Contact her at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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