New Project to Train Native Birds to Avoid Predators After Release
The ʻAlalā Project, a group of government and non-government organizations, is working to restore a self sustaining, breeding population of ʻAlalā (native Hawaiian crows). The ʻAlalā have been extinct in the wild for over a decade and the last wild ʻAlalā were seen in South Kona more than 15 years ago.
The ʻAlalā Project will be using sights and sounds to train these birds to avoid predators after they are released into the Pu‘u Maka‘āla Natural Area Reserve (NAR). A year ago, eleven ʻAlalā were reintroduced into the NAR where they are adapting well, according to the ʻAlalā Project. Later this month, the ʻAlalā Project plans on releasing two separate groups of ʻAlalā into the same NAR but at a different location.
Scientists have found that many animals like the ʻAlalā cannot recognize their predators if they have not encountered them before. “These birds, raised in captivity, have never…had the chance to learn from their parents or their peers about the dangerous predators in their own backyards,” San Diego Zooʻs Dr. Alison Gregor said. “We provide that learning opportunity by mimicking biologically relevant scenarios that they’d get had they been born in the wild.”
Dr. Greggor trained a team of half of a dozen staff members from The ʻAlalā Project. She showed the team how to videotape and observe ʻAlalā behaviors during the introduction of ‘Io sounds and sights into their aviary, a large enclosure that the birds are kept in. “We will look at the videos to see how individual birds and the cohort respond to the audio and visual stimuli…we want to be certain no bird is left behind,” Greggor explained.
The predator aversion training lasts for less than 25 minutes. The team first observes how the birds act before they encounter any stimuli. At the 18-minute mark, the team plays the recorded screech of an ‘Io as a stuffed ‘Io attached to a pulley system “flies” over the open-air roof of the aviary.
The team then plays ʻAlalā alarm calls. “The alarm calls communicate, danger, danger, danger. While the recording plays we present Kapono (the Panaʻewa Rainforest Zoo’s resident ‘Io) in a side chamber of the aviary,” Greggor said. “He flaps his wings and then we start playing distress calls that go from the danger alert to help me, help me, help me. At that point, a stuffed American Crow is put under the ‘Io’s feet so we complete the full picture from the approach of a predator to a full-on perceived attack.”
Predator recognition and aversion tactics have been used by other reintroduction efforts, especially those aiming to release captive individuals that are not familiar with any predatory threats. To get the best response from the ʻAlalā, team members worked cooperatively with reintroduction experts Tom White of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Debra Shier of San Diego Zoo Global to develop a sequence of stimuli. “We wanted an experience that would instill in those birds a very real fear and recognition of a deadly predator,” White said.
Project team members feel very fortunate to have the help of Kapono from the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo. The ‘Io is glove-trained, which allows the crew to create a natural predatory scenario without any actual danger to the birds. In addition to Kapono, the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum loaned the stuffed ‘Io to the project, while the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History gifted them the stuffed American Crow.“Between the collection of props, live and recorded stimuli, and advice from experts afar, training the ‘Alalā is a concerted and innovative collaborative effort,” Project Biologist Jackie Gaudioso-Levita said.
Rachel Kingsley, The ʻAlalā Project Education and Outreach Associate, operated one of the cameras during the training. “The various angles from the video cameras provide invaluable insights to the pre-and post-behaviors of the entire group and of individual birds,” Kingsley said. “At first glance, it appears the cohort responded to predator sights and sounds strongly…just what we want to see happening before these highly intelligent creatures are released into the forest.”