In Search of an Extinct Crow on a Live Volcano
I listen for its musical caw but am, alas, 'alalā-less
AFTER SEVERAL MILES OF BOOT-SUCKING MUD and tangled, moss-covered roots, I reach the end of the trail. I'm drenched with sweat and soaked from brushing against the overhanging fronds of giant hāpu'u tree ferns, heavy with raindrops from the steady drizzle in the Big Island's Pu'u Maka'ala Natural Area Reserve.
It seems like a lot of work just to see some crows. Especially when I'm not even certain that any 'alalā are in this preserve. The rare Hawaiian crow is, in fact, technically extinct in the wild.
I'm no birder—no life list or fancy scopes for me. But during annual trips to the Big Island—typically split between beach time on the sunny Kohala coast and a few days sequestered in the misty, 4,000-foot-elevation cloud forests outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park—I'd become intrigued by the birds. I first encountered them at the Volcano Art Center, a gallery for Hawaiian art in the national park. Among the koa wood bowls and fine art photos of lava flows were numerous paintings and wood-block prints of crows.
Why? The 'alalā, I learned, is not your ordinary, french-fry-scavenging crow. Endemic to the Big Island, it's one of the world's rarest birds, the last survivor of the five species of corvids that once lived in Hawaii. Many artists portray them because of their role as spiritual guardians in Hawaiian culture.
Yet the 'alalā, which arrived in Hawaii long before the first humans, has been extinct in the wild since 2002, a victim of the familiar litany of threats: habitat loss and degradation; disease transmitted by feral cats, rats, and mongooses; predation by non-native species; and hunting.
A captive-breeding program managed by San Diego Zoo Global's Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program has boosted the 'alalā population to more than 100, and the first release back into the wild was tentatively planned during my visit. I tried to confirm the release schedule but was firmly, if politely, rebuffed. My only option is to take my chances on the reserve's ferny trails.
Deep within Pu'u Maka'ala's 18,730 acres, I would certainly hear an 'alalā before seeing one. One translation of the Hawaiian word 'alalā is "to bawl, bleat, squeal, cry." The birds' vocalizations (which inspired a style of Native Hawaiian chanting) are far more complex and musical than the familiar shrieks and caws of their mainland cousins. So I stop frequently as I slip-slide my way along the trail, hearing the lilting songs of native 'apapane and 'i'iwi and occasionally glimpsing their brilliant red plumage as they flit among the branches. But alas, I am 'alalā-less.
I go to bed early. It is cool and silent, but I'm half listening for rain and, on this night, wake frequently to gaze through the skylight of my cabin to check for stars. If the weather is good, I'm going to stumble out two hours before dawn to see what's happening at Kīlauea's Halema'uma'u Crater, the legendary dwelling place of Pele, Hawaii's volcano goddess.
At 4 A.M., the skies are clear and the thermometer reads a decidedly un-Hawaiian 49 degrees on the 10-minute drive from cabin to crater rim. Halema'uma'u has been erupting continuously since 2008, but during previous trips the lava lake was bubbling deep within the crater and all I ever saw was an orange glow. This time the lava is far higher, and roiling eruptions send sparking fountains into the sky as rivulets of fire trace fissures across the crater. And the sound: hissing, tumbling boulders, a low moan straight from the guts of the earth. Then dawn arrives, first as a deep orange on the horizon, then ripening and turning the plume of smoke, ash, and gas to magenta as Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, the Big Island's two 13,000-foot volcanoes, light up in the distance.
Later I set out on the Kīlauea Iki Trail. The loop drops through primordial forests and into a crater that in November 1959 sent lava 1,200 feet into the sky. For about a mile, the trail crosses the crater's jagged, broken floor, where steam rises from vents and ferns and ohias slowly colonize cracks in the lava.
This is the point in the essay when I wish I could report that I heard a strange call in the forest and looked up to see an 'alalā. Sadly, I later learn, three of the five 'alalā died soon after being released, and the other two were recaptured. Especially with social birds like the 'alalā, establishing new wild populations is far more complicated than simply opening a cage door and letting a bird go.
As I work my way across Kīlauea Iki, a rainbow forms, its ends tucked compactly inside the crater. A flock of nene, the native Hawaiian goose once nearly as endangered as the 'alalā, honk noisily as they wing overhead. Standing on rock born within three weeks of me, I feel the unmistakable sense of newness and possibility that the volcano always inspires. This is a place of beginnings, and perhaps someday soon, a fresh start for the 'alalā.
This article appeared in the January/February 2018 edition with the headline "Alas, 'Alalā-less."
- WHERE Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, on the Big Island
- GETTING THERE The Hawaii County Mass Transit Agency's Hele-On bus leaves from downtown Hilo, but because there are no shuttles within the national park, you might need to rent a car.
- WHEN TO VISIT Any time, as temperatures don't vary much, though summer is marginally warmer. It rains throughout the year. November and December are the wettest months, June and September the driest.
- MUST-SEE Kīlauea Volcano is one of the world's most active volcanoes and is currently erupting at the summit, while flows from the Pu'u 'Ō'ō vent reach the ocean. The overlook at the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, which offers volcanology exhibits and ranger-led talks and hikes, is the best viewing spot.
- PRO TIP Get out in the total darkness a couple hours before dawn for prime views of Halema'uma'u's eruption. It's less crowded than after sunset, and the spectacular sunrise is its own reward.
- ADDITIONAL READING Seeking the Sacred Raven: Politics and Extinction on a Hawaiian Island (Island Press, 2006) by Mark Jerome Walters and Hawaii Volcanoes (University of Hawaii Press, 2005) by Clarence E. Dutton
- MORE nps.gov/havo