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Naturalist strives to save endangered bird

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer Peter Harrity teaches 3-year-old Sam Smith, a pupil with the Cortland Child Development Center, about owls at Lime Hollow Nature Center in this file photo.

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Peter Harrity teaches 3-year-old Sam Smith, a pupil with the Cortland Child Development Center, about owls at Lime Hollow Nature Center in this file photo.

CORTLANDVILLE — A charismatic crow with a lot to say is getting another chance at life through a release program that a Lime Hollow naturalist is taking part in next week.

The ’alala, or Hawaiian crow, holds a special place in Peter Harrity’s heart. Harrity, the senior naturalist at Lime Hollow Nature Center in Cortlandville, came to know the bird in 1992 when he helped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduce the bird to the wild. It didn’t work, and the bird has been extinct in the wild since 2002.

He will visit Hawaii for a few days to help attach transmitters to and monitor five young crows to start repopulating the endangered species.

Harrity said this week he was honored to be asked to help. He was originally involved with the effort because of his role as a raptor biologist with the Peregrine Fund, which was tapped for the first effort.

“Just to know that the release is back on track means a lot to me personally but it also means a lot to all the biologists, landowners and partners who have been involved with this crow,” Harrity said.

He described the bird, in the corvid family, as intelligent, charismatic and with a tremendous range of vocalizations.

Manmade influences changed the landscape and introduced new predators in Hawaii, so the bird has largely died off. The latest effort to reintroduce them resulted in high mortality, he said.

The San Diego Zoo Global raised about 100 captive-bred birds in its Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Harrity hopes the new effort will see long-term success. Nineteen babies hatched last spring, a number Harrity called “pretty darn good.”

Of those birds, 12 will be released, with five in the first installment that Harrity will be involved in and seven later.

“’Alala are very intelligent and precocious birds and are inclined to play with and manipulate new items,” said Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. “So our ability to observe their behaviors closely and give them more time allows us to make adjustments to the tracking systems we will be using once they are released.”

“The hope is that in subsequent years we will have similar number of birds to release,” Harrity said.
Success cannot be measured immediately when it comes to restoring endangered species.

“No release program is successful in the short term, it’s always a long term projects. Unless you have enough birds available to release, you never get to work out the kinks,” Harrity said.

It can take 20 years to see a healthy number of birds. By releasing them gradually over years, biologists have time to understand the challenges the birds face and how their chance for success can be increased, he said.

Harrity said biologists have already done work to mitigate vermin like rats and mongoose in the part of Hawaii where

the birds will be released and he hopes his experience can help.

“It’s a great new start for the ’alala and everyone in Hawaii is very excited and anxious because of the past mortalities and knowing that the captive flock is coming strong they’ve got a lot of flexibility long term,” he said.

“’Alala are an important part of the life of the Hawaiian forest, eating and assisting with the dispersal of native plant seeds,” said Jackie Gaudioso-Levite, project coordinator of the ‘Alala Restoration Project for the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. “The reintroduction of this species, gone from the forest for more than a decade, is expected to be an important part of the overall recovery of the ecosystem.”

“They are special because they are part of the environment and I don’t want to lose anything, if we can avoid it,” Harrity said. “And if it is man-induced, the endangered status, there is kind of a responsibility plus a challenge to find out what went wrong to see if we can keep them back in the environment.”

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