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National report highlights dire situation for Hawaiʻi’s endemic birds

The ʻakikiki bird is endangered and only found on Kauaʻi.
Kauaʻi Forest Bird Recovery Project
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HPR
The ʻakikiki is critically endangered and only found on Kauaʻi.

The sound of the ʻakikiki once filled the forests on Kauaʻi. It’s a small gray honeycreeper endemic to Kauaʻi. That means it’s found nowhere else in the world except the Garden Isle.

But since the early 2000s, the population has significantly declined. Officials estimate that there are only about 50 left in the wild and about 40 in captivity.

“We really are in a dire situation,” said Ulalia Woodside, executive director of the Nature Conservancy’s Hawaiʻi and Palmyra chapter. “The next extinctions in the United States are likely to occur on Kauaʻi and Maui.”

Woodside, a kumu hula, said the cultural and environmental significance of our native birds dates back to the Kumulipo, or Hawaiian creation chant.

_akeke_e.jpg
Carter Atkinson/USGS
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HPR
The ʻakekeʻe is also endemic to Kauaʻi.

“These birds then created a relationship with the plants of this place… really creating an incredibly unique environment here in Hawaiʻi,” she said, “one that recognizes the interdependence of life between everything — the birds, the plants, even the ocean and us, as humans.”

The ʻakikiki is one of the birds highlighted in the national State of the Birds 2022 report. It’s compiled by the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative, a coalition of about 30 government agencies and private organizations.

The report paints a grim picture — nearly half of Hawaiʻi’s 73 endemic birds have gone or are thought to be extinct. And 33% are either endangered or threatened. Other critically endangered birds include Maui’s kiwikiu and Kauaʻi’s ʻakekeʻe.

While predators and loss of habitat have contributed to their decline, avian malaria and climate change are particularly lethal. Avian malaria is a disease transmitted by mosquitoes.

“We know that avian malaria, the bite of an infected mosquito will kill a bird, just one bite,” said Natalie Gates, Haleakalā National Park’s superintendent.

They are part of a multiagency coalition that hopes to save these endangered birds. They are proposing to release male mosquitoes bred with a naturally occurring bacteria that would make mosquito eggs sterile, she said.

kiwikiu_MauiForestBirdRecoveryProject.jpg
Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project
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HPR
The kiwikiu is endemic to Maui and is endangered.

“What we’re hoping for and we think is actually feasible is that the mosquito populations would crash,” she said. “So if the mosquito populations in bird habitats crash, the birds would probably survive.”

Gates said this technology has been used to combat human diseases, such as dengue fever. But this is the first time they plan to use it for conservation.

The environmental assessment detailing the project is out for public review. Gates said they hope to publish the final document incorporating public input by late spring or early summer of next year. And their goal is to begin implementing it at Haleakalā next fall.

Other projects at Haleakalā include controlling invasive weeds, planting native plants and putting up fences to keep predators out.

Woodside’s Nature Conservancy is also part of the group trying to tackle mosquitoes and avian malaria. They also partner with community groups and government agencies, as well as work to protect native habitats. She encourages the public to learn more about these birds.

“These are our neighbors. We even could say we live in their home,” she said. “So we can get to know them and hopefully love them and hopefully want to see them thrive.”

Want to learn more about Hawaiʻi birds? Each week, HPR's Manu Minute brings you a different Hawaiʻi bird and its unique song.

Jayna Omaye is the culture and arts reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Contact her at jomaye@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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