If there were 800 humans left on the entire earth you might feel a bit uncertain about their survival. So many things could happen to 800 humans – disease, fire, tsunami, starvation – that would cause them to go extinct. In fact, 800 is such a small number it seems almost likely to happen. 800, 1000, 2000, those are the populations of some Hawaii’s most endangered native birds. They have been pushed to the brink of extinction by human activity and will certainly go extinct unless we intervene to undo our damage.
When Europeans first discovered the islands of Hawaii in 1778 they were drawn to their paradise-like attributes. Lush forests, diverse reefs, plentiful fish, rainbows, no mosquitoes, and a thriving population of Native Hawaiian Islanders. It was the land of opportunity and plenty. Among the forests were 142 species of birds found nowhere else in the world (call endemics). 95 of those species have gone extinct and some of the remaining 47 are on the verge of extinction and will disappear in your lifetime unless action is taken to preserve their habitats.
The most diverse bird group on the Big Island of Hawaii were the Hawaii Honeycreepers. Over 56 species were on the islands of Hawaii at European Contact and only 18 are left now. Many of these birds are specialists highly adapted to their native forests and fill many niches (places to live or types of food they eat). For instance, the I’iwi’s (pronounced ee-ee-vee) curved bill fits perfectly into flowers which have adapted their shape to fit that bird and vice versa. The ʻakiapōlāʻau ( pronounced akia-pola-ow) only eats grubs from the wood of Koa trees. All of these birds evolved without predators and with very few disease. When those things are introduced the birds are very naïve to predation and susceptible to disease leading to large losses in their populations.
Step in to the Forest
Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge resides at 6,500 feet on the side of Mauna Kea and contains remnants of Hawaii’s old growth forests. On most days mist and fog shapeshift through the landscape during their wind-driven passage. The morning we stepped into it, bird song of exotic honeycreepers filled the air making me reflect on how those woods must have sounded when none of them had gone extinct. Old growth Hawaiian forests do not look tropical, although you may envision palms and ferns in your mind. Rather, ancient ʻŌhiʻa trees with small round leaves and bright red blossoms twist their pompom-clusters of branches and leaves into the canopy in search in light. The largest ʻŌhiʻa in this forest existed during the Byzantine Empire and during the rise of Tikal; they are over 1,500 years old. Throughout the woods broad Koa trees stand covered in fur-like green lichen with their unique, blade-shaped leaves turned vertically to soak up the sun. It’s a magical place that only a few hundred people get to visit each year. Most people visit it to see it suite of endemic birds as the refuge is maintained specifically for the protection of native species and their habitat through removal of non-native feral animals and plants for over 35 years.
Hakalau is ideally positioned for native forest birds trying to get away from mosquitoes which infect them with Avian Malaria. As our (highly recommended) guide Jack Jeffrey explained, on the slopes of Mauna Kea the weather is consistently too cold for mosquitoes to thrive. However, climate change is impacting the warmth of tropical regions, too, and mosquitoes are slowly migrating up slope to put more pressure on the birds. Some birds are showing signs of slight resistance to Avian Malaria, but most die within 2-3 weeks of a bite from a single infected mosquito.
Some of The Extraordinary Residents of Hakalau Forest and the Big Isle
There are so many amazing birds on the Big Island. I’m going to focus mostly on the Honeycreeper family to show off some of the diversity and beauty of these unique finches!
There are only three truly orange birds in the world and the Akepa is one of them. This species is down to a population of 2,000 birds. They do not reach maturity until after 2 years which is unusual for their size (small birds usually breed more). This makes them susceptible to population loss.
Hawaii Creeper (Alawi) – 2000 birds
This small birds was placed on the endangered species list in 1975. At that time it was estimated that 12,500 birds were in the wild. Latest surveys suggest there are 2,000 left in the wild. I loved their fast movements to scout bugs from inside lichen and under bark.
This incredible bird has been reduced to nearly 800 individuals on the Big Island of Hawaii. Species similar to this birds have gone extinct on other Hawaiian islands. They reproduce very slowly and are reliant on Koa forests to feed. Their unique bill is used to awl into wood with the bottom portion and extract grubs with the top. Our day in Hakalau was a VERY special one with this species. We were able to watch it feed its fledgling. The young chick called with a chipping voice for the adult constantly which browsed the branches for food to deliver.
The Palila is one of the last members of the “finch-billed” honeycreepers. They only, and I mean ONLY, eat the immature seeds of the mämane. This shrub-like tree is in the legume family and produces small pea-like fruit. Being with Jack Jeffrey put the plight of this bird in perspective. When he began surveying them in the late 70s there were 20,000 Palila. There are just 1,000 Palila left. He suspects this will be a bird that goes extinct in his lifetime adding to the list of 7 or 8 Hawaiian birds he has seen go extinct. Change is happening very quickly and can be seen in your lifetime.
I’iwi are truly spectactular. They were once common throughout all of the islands of Hawaii, but the Hakalau forest now contains 70% of their population. I’iwi are VERY susceptible to Avian Malaria – 90% of birds die from a single infected mosquito bite. We were so fortunate that our day at Hakalau was filled with unbelievable and close views of these birds. We watched them feed on various flowers and watched several go through their mating ritual where the female begs for the food. It’s up to the male to impress her! We saw one successful male copulate – hopefully that means the population will be at least 1 bird larger soon!
Apapane are one species of Hawaiian Honeycreeper that have been to resistant to change and disease. Their populations are still pretty large. They mostly commonly feed on the flowers of O’hia giving a dazzling display of red-on-red. Often times you could hear the woosh of their wings before seeing the bird.
The Hawaii Amakihi eats insects and flowers making it a “generalist”. This fact has allowed them to adjust to changing forest conditions. Not a lot is known about their populations, but they seem to be pretty secure at this time. We ran into one researcher while watching them and she said there is evidence that lower-elevation birds are more resistant to Avian Malaria.She was trying to determine why that is. I hope I have a chance to see the results of her work and see how it may help this species in the future.
Some of The Extraordinary Residents of Kauai
I want to switch away from Hakalau Forest to show you a couple of Honeycreepers from the island of Kauai. They are suffering from the same pressures as Honeycreepers on other islands.
The Kauai Amakihi is genetically different than the Hawaii Amakihi, although is very similar in its appearance. In Kokee State Park in Kauai we found a banded one! I hope to find out some information on this bird, how old it is, and what they were studying by reporting the band colors.
The Anianiau (pronounced awnee-awnee-ow) is in decline and can only be found in upland, wetland forests in Kauai. They are the smallest honeycreeper at just 0.35 ounces! That’s the weight of ½ tube of chapstick! These birds are a brilliant yellow and we fortunate enough to discover them in Kokee State Park.
So What? Who Cares?
Like so many conservation issues (climate change, loss of rain forest, extinction of species every day, plastic in our water, and so much more) we are disconnected geographically and visually from what is happening. The reality is the native birds of Hawaii need your help, but why does that matter? Creating habitat that supports these birds supports many other species as well. Thinking about the holistic health of the forest increases the benefit of every dollar spent to conserve a single species. If you are interested in donating, please visit The Friends of Hakalau Forest to learn how you can help. I would recommend a trip to see these incredible Hawaiian Birds and highly recommend Jack Jeffrey as your guide. He will connect you to that place in an unforgettable way. Establishing that connection will give you empathy not only for these amazing Hawaiian birds, but also for the plight of animals and ecosystems worldwide suffering from human pressure and change.