Friday, May 25, 2001

Two alala chicks added to the species in 1998 but
since then, numbers have dropped.

Alala bird on
Big Isle presumed
to be dead

Experts trying to revive
the indigenous species
now admit they erred

By Rod Thompson
Big Island correspondent

MCCANDLESS RANCH, Hawaii >> One of the last three wild alala birds is missing and presumed dead in South Kona, but scientists are still optimistic the species can be saved.

The lone male of unknown age was last seen in June, 2000. Alala often disappear for a while, but the male has failed to reappear since breeding season started in February.

Meanwhile, the one remaining wild couple haven't produced offspring since 1996.

Besides the two in the wild, 27 alala hatched in captivity are housed in facilities at Volcano, Hawaii and Olinda, Maui.

Scientists began a renewed effort to save the alala in 1993. They now realize they made mistakes, said Jeff Burgett of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

They released 27 birds over time. All but six died or were killed by native hawks called io.

"There's no cookbook anybody can go by. It's basically a series of experiments," he said.

The six captive-hatched survivors were recaptured, and efforts will now focus on increasing their numbers over the next few years, he said.

An indicator of hope is the fact that black robins in New Zealand, once down to five individuals, are now back to well over 50, said Burgett.

The two wild-hatched and the six captive-hatched birds show the alala can learn to hide from io. The trick will be to get the savvy six to teach hatchlings the skill in a controlled environment where there are no io to hide from, Burgett said.

Long known as the Hawaiian crow, genetic studies now show the alala is more closely related to ravens, said Burgett.

Ancient bones show there were four kinds of crows and ravens when Polynesians first arrived here. Despite their colorless appearance, alala are smart and even musical, Burgett said. They make about 40 different kinds of calls.

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