The story of the extinction of crows indigenous to the Hawai'ian forests is not well-known outside of the islands. I came upon it through writing about The Frozen Ark in San Diego, where some tissues from Corvus hawaiiensis are preserved in liquid nitrogen. In 2002, the last two ‘alalā, as they are called in Hawai'i, disappeared from the wild and there are around 110 individuals in captivity today. Hawai'ian crows, like other corvid species, are extraordinarily intelligent and emotional; they have been observed using twigs as tools to get food and are monogamous, and forming lasting bonds. Bird couples usually build nests together in early spring and raising a brood of one or two chicks each year. Because the crows' vocalizations are so distinctive--ranging from howling to growling to muttering, I was eager to hear what they sounded like and found this gem, a recording of some of the last ‘alalā living in the wild, taken on McCandless Ranch, a privately-owned tract of land in the Kona District of Hawai’i island. Early hunters disliked the crows because the curious birds would follow them through the woods, and their squawks alerted other animals to their presence. But it was easy enough to imitate the birds’ own calls to draw them close enough to shoot them. In the late 1800s, the archeologists Henry W. Henshaw wrote that, “It would be difficult to imagine a bird differing more in disposition from the common American crow than the Hawaiian ‘alalā. The bird, instead of being wary and shy, seems to have not the slightest fear of man, and when it espies an intruder in the woods is more likely than not to fly to meet him and greet his presence with a few loud caws. He will even follow the stranger’s steps through the woods, taking short flights from tree to tree, the better to observe him and gain an idea of his character and purpose.”
The word "‘alalā" has a multitude of meanings and connotations within Hawaiian culture, where the bird has a potent spiritual and symbolic place. Some say the word comes from from ala (to rise up) and lā (the sun), a reference to the garullus bird’s habit of filling the forest with its voice in the morning, while others say the word refers to the sound a child makes. During the court of Kamehameha in the 18th century, the ‘alalā were a group of gifted orators used by the king to deliver news in poetic form or songs, or during wartime communicate commands to warriors.
The question of whether ‘alalās have maintained the behaviors of forest-dwelling birds is central to the effort to conserve them. Unlike some bird species, ‘alalās are not hardwired from birth for particular behaviors. Instead, they learn how to be a crow, so to speak, from their parents in the year after hatching and when the juvenile birds join the larger flock, which can contain multiple generations of the young bird’s family. For over two decades, the eggs of captive ‘alalās have been pulled from the parent’ nest and hatched in incubators to insure their survival. Until 2014, when a few birds were allowed to hatch their own eggs, all ‘alalās in existence have been raised by humans rather than other birds. There is evidence that the birds’ culture has already changed in substantial ways as a result, as behaviors particular to the ‘alalā, once passed from generation to generation, have disappeared. The birds’ repertoire of vocalizations has diminished. When an release of captive bred ‘alalā was attempted in the 1990s, the crows appeared to no longer know how to avoid the ‘io, the Hawaiian hawks they once banded together against. The crows are habituated to humans and no longer forage for food for daily survival; all behaviors that might be important for their ability to survive back in the wild one day. In his book Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, anthropologist and philosopher Thom van Dooren spoke with local Hawaiians about the ‘alalā, including Cynnie Salley, who fought so bitterly to keep the last wild ‘alalā on her land. Salley told Dooren she believes the captive breeding program has changed the crows profoundly, so much so that they represent a different species.
"They were kind of like the kings and queens of the forest. They chased the hawks and the hawks had a healthy respect for them. As a matter of fact, it took four or five years of releasing young birds before the hawks realized that these were different than the ones that used to chase them around and that they had fair game… All of those birds that were originally wild are now gone. All of the birds there [at KBCC] have been raised by puppets. So I truly feel that whatever happens in the forest now with these birds, it’s a different species…. Whatever they release now is really starting at evolutionary ground zero. They’re going to have to relearn everything—including calls… So, from their language on up they’re going to have a huge learning curve. So it’s going to be a different bird."