It was a day in mid-May 1996, like any other at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii. But this would turn out to be a day to remember! Marla Kuhn opened the door to the staff meeting room, interrupting our usual Tuesday meeting. She was on the egg-and-chick shift and was not expected to attend the staff meeting, so her quiet entrance took everyone by surprise. All eyes turned to Marla, and the look on her face told me something was wrong. ”What died?” I whispered. She paused, looked at all of us one by one around the table, and spoke slowly, barely audible, perhaps out of fear that she could be wrong, “It’s fertile.”
She was speaking of the most recent wild egg collected from the last wild pair of Hawaiian crows, or álala, in existence. This would turn out to be the last egg ever laid by a wild álala, and it was fertile! We all sat silent. This was almost too much to hope for!
We knew this was a big deal, but it would take years before we recognized the true significance of this egg. This would be the egg that would change the future of the alala recovery effort. The egg hatched on June 9 of that year. It would be identified as Studbook #67 and named Oli, meaning “ritual chant” in the Hawaiian language. And although Oli would turn out to be a reluctant breeder, producing but six offspring over the years, his overall contribution to the gene pool has been monumental. Oli’s unique genes are now represented by no less than 47 of the 110 birds in the world population.
Thanks to the genetic vigor of the offspring from Oli’s genetic line, the program produced a record 19 chicks in 2011, a full 15 years after Oli hatched in 1996, and 15 chicks in 2012! We knew that last fertile egg was huge, but we never realized what a game changer it would be until these last few breeding seasons, where production has constantly and consistently improved. The ability to breed from unrelated stock coupled with the improvements and changes in the incubation, nutrition, and management of the flock has put the Alala Recovery Program on solid footing. We are now anticipating releasing alala in 2014, a full 20 years after we began our conservation program in 1993.
There is still much to be done: eliminate nonnative predators, invasive plant species, cattle, sheep, and pigs; dry up the wallows where mosquitoes thrive; and fence off the forests that will require recovery to support the expanding alala population. These are all great challenges, but motivated by our exceptional success in breeding the alala, the government agencies of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife are up to the task of habitat recovery and long-term management. This is truly a partnership for the next generation, because we are speaking in terms of many years, many generations both avian and human.
The forests of Hawaii have suffered many insults over the past 2,000 years, and it will not be easy to recover from the damage. But all agree that the alala is a key, perhaps THE key, to a healthy Hawaiian forest on every level: biological, ecological, and, most importantly, cultural. The alala is to Hawaii what the bald eagle is to the US as a nation. The alala has motivated Hawaii to begin the long path to habitat health, and we are most proud to be leaders in that effort.
Alan Lieberman is a research fellow at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.