To tell you about our Hawaii vacation, I could recount our whale watching trips, describe our friends’ beautiful house on the Big Island or post too many of my photos. But the most exciting and unique part of our short vacation was talking to one of the people who is saving the last of Hawaii’s native crows, the ‘Alala. Turns out I know her personally. As in, I’ve known her since she was two years old. Then suddenly, she grew up, became an elite California runner, a UC Berkeley graduate, a Bill Gates scholar and a doctoral recipient from Cambridge University in England. Not sure how that happened, but now she’s Dr. Greggor and she’s living on the slopes of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park helping to breed, acclimate, and release into the wild one of Hawaii’s iconic and sacred bird species.
Let me explain that the ‘Alala Project isn’t just any conservation project. You’d have to go back to the rescue from the brink of extinction of the California Condor to find its like. At one point, there were only nine ‘Alala left in the world. All the successfully bred birds today descended from them. But, of course, as lab raised birds, they have to be trained by human parents to have the necessary bird behaviors, such as fending off their only native predator, the ‘Io hawk, one of Hawaii’s two native raptors. Which is where Dr. Greggor’s impressive running ability comes in. Part of the work has her running up the side of volcanoes in a “crow suit” — which looks sort of like black Klan robes and is designed to keep the ‘Alala from associating humans with food and comfort — all while carrying birds, food or tracking equipment.
I won’t tell you all the details of the program because you can read all about it here, including how the project is sequencing the ‘Alala genome, reaching out to get community involvement in the program, and how the research gained is being used to rescue other endangered Hawaiian birds. I encourage you especially to flip to the article “Step by Step: Preparing the ‘Alala for Life in the Wild”, which is written by our own Dr. Greggor. Since the details of the program are so much more expertly discussed (in very readable, non-Sciency prose), let me just tell you a few facts not in the article that I got over cocktails with Dr. Greggor:
The name ‘Alala means “Forest Crier”, which references not only its raucous call, but the traditional role of the warrior crier who called Hawaiians to battle.
One of the reasons the ‘Alala is an iconic and important species is that it was one of the animals traditionally designated by family groups as a bringer of souls to the afterlife. In fact, tradition says that a family’s departed is not only brought to the afterlife by their guardian but come back as that guardian animal. So the ‘Alala is literally seen as the ancestor of certain Hawaiian family groups.
Groups of ‘Alala that have been released into the wild and are being monitored have been observed mobbing and driving away the ‘Io Hawaiian Hawk, their only native predator. So Dr. Greggor and crew have taught them well.
The ‘Alala are important seed carriers of certain native plants. So returning the ‘Alala helps return native landscapes.
The ‘Alala Project is spearheaded by the San Diego Zoo Global Institute for Conservation Research, the same entity that saved the California Condor. So they know how to do this.
Perhaps one of my favorite take-aways from talking to Dr. Greggor is her optimism. Which she says is something environmentalists are trying to cultivate, even though they are on the front lines of the effects of Climate Change and extinction events. But she and the environmental community choose to believe the Earth can be saved. Because they are saving it.
Gives me hope.