I’ve mentioned in previous posts that some crows are among the most endangered birds on the planet, such as the ʻAlalā, or Hawaiian Crow (Corvus hawaiiensis) and the Mariana crow, or Aga (Corvus kubaryi). A colleague and friend, Sarah Faegre was kind enough to send me information on the new non-profit she and Phil Hannon have created for the conservation of Mariana crows. I asked Sarah to please send me information so I could spread the word, especially since they are doing incredible work with the local community to spread the message of conservation and coexistence. Here is what Sarah had to say:
Luta Bird Conservation Inc. (LBC) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, created by Sarah Faegre and Phil Hannon to raise funds to conserve endangered birds and their habitats by working with the human communities surrounding them. LBC’s first project is the conservation of the Aga (Mariana Crow, Corvus kubaryi) on Rota, Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands (CNMI). Specifically, LBC’s aim is to use education and community outreach to involve local people directly in research and management of the Aga on Rota. The Aga is the only crow species in Micronesia and is endemic Rota and Guam, to the two southernmost islands of the Mariana Islands archipelago. Once common on both Guam and Rota, the Aga was extirpated from Guam by the Brown Tree Snake (Boiga irregularis). The Aga now exists on only Rota, an 86-square-kilometer island. Rota does not have snakes, but other problems, such as feral cats, human persecution and habitat changes (among other possible causes) have caused a steep decline on Rota as well. As of 2014, an estimated 130 individuals remain on this small island (and in the world) and the population is still declining.
The majority of the funding for Aga conservation comes from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the CNMI Department of Lands and Natural Resources. However these funds are limited and, in particular, education and community involvement has been underutilized. Community outreach and education are extremely important; without the support of the local people the Aga is unlikely to survive. Currently, a high percentage of the local population has a negative view of the Aga, due to land-use conflicts and due to conflicts between federal and state-run governmental programs. LBC’s goals include working in the schools to help kids understand the value of the Aga and to encourage them to take pride in their native animals by working with biologists and educating their peers.
Many mainland residents may think that crows are everywhere and shouldn’t need much extra help to survive alongside people. In fact, these beliefs are also common among the local population on Rota, due to the lack of education about the uniqueness of Rota’s Aga. The the appearance may be similar to the casual observer, the Aga is quite different from the crows of the mainland US. Aga do not gather in large groups, but stick to their family unit and small home range area in the jungle. They have unique foraging abilities, such as opening hard-shelled hermit crabs with their beak. Since Aga evolved without predators for thousands of years, they lost their vigilance behaviors and are now unable to protect themselves from introduced predators.
LBC’s recent activities include raising funds for Aga T-shirts that kids and adults can wear, in hopes that we can spread knowledge and pride about this unique crow species. The painting used for the T-shirt was created by artist, biologist and Corvid expert Jennifer Campbell-Smith. The painting depicts an adult Aga (foreground) and fledgling Aga (background). The adult is cracking open a hermit crab while the fledgling observes. The design surrounding the painting depicts some of the Aga’s common food items and also the Brown Tree Snake, the invasive species that resulted in the extirpation of the Aga (and other native birds) from Guam. Luckily the Brown Tree Snake is not present on Rota and with the help of the local community, we still have time to save the species. The Chamorro phrase at the top of the T-shirts translates to: “Make Rota Beautiful”, which a common motto of Rota island.