Four species of native Hawaiian honeycreepers, including one on Maui whose population has dwindled to fewer than 150, will likely go extinct in the next two to 10 years unless conservationists can stop the spread of disease that’s decimating the birds, wildlife experts say.
“We’re looking at an immediate danger of Hawaiian species going extinct,” said Dave Smith, administrator of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife. “And so we’re in a race to try to save them.”
One of the species at risk is the kiwikiu, or Maui parrotbill, with an estimated 135 remaining on the Valley Isle, according to a report released Thursday by state and federal agencies. The bird’s range has been reduced by 41 percent as it moves higher into the mountains to escape mosquitoes, and efforts to repopulate the species in the forests of leeward Haleakala have been thwarted by avian malaria. Two kiwikiu remain in captivity.
Meanwhile, the ‘akohekohe, or crested honeycreeper, is down to 1,657 birds on Maui and has seen its range reduced by 61 percent. No birds of this kind are in captivity.
Two other species also face the prospect of going extinct in the coming years—the ‘akeke’e, of which there are 638 left in the wild and seven in captivity, and the ‘akikiki, of which there are still 45 on Kauai and 41 in captivity.
The islands once had about 50 species of Hawaiian honeycreeper and are now down to about 17 species, and for some, “an extinction crisis” is right on the horizon,“Smith said during a news conference in Honolulu on Thursday. He and others blamed avian disease as the “hand culprit.”
“Hawaiian birds face many threats, but avian malaria, which is a nonnative disease spread by nonnative mosquitoes, is the overwhelming threat to the persistence of these birds,” said Robert Reed, deputy director of the US Geological Survey Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center. “Just one bite from an infected mosquito can result in the death of a bird. The biologists studying these birds unanimously agree that all four species will likely go extinct in the next two to 10 years unless something is done to prevent the spread of avian disease.”
Conservationists have long mulled the idea of mosquito birth control, a strategy that involves releasing male mosquitoes carrying a specific strain of bacteria that would affect their reproduction and ability to fertilize eggs. They hope it will help take down the local population of mosquitoes that’s moved to higher elevations as temperatures warm.
It’s one of the suggestions in a report produced by USGS, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Department of the Interior’s Office of Native Hawaiian Relations. Other options include bringing the birds into captive care until mosquitoes can be controlled on a wide scale, and translocating the birds from forests threatened by avian malaria or captivity to disease-free sites.
Officials are hoping to get the mosquito control program on the ground in the next two years, “but that may be too late for a couple of species,” Smith said.
The immediate short-term plan is to bring the birds who are in immediate danger of extinction into a safe holding facility; the species that don’t do as well in captivity will be monitored and managed in the field. Once they’re in a safe location, then officials can look at options like breeding or translocation.
“The idea would be to bring them in and hold them in captivity just long enough to be able to get wolbachia (the mosquito bacteria) effective on the ground, suppress the mosquito populations and be able to let those birds go back where we got them ,” Smith said. “And so that’s the preferred option.”
Currently, captive care facilities in Hawaii are closed to full, according to the DLNR.
Local groups like the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project have spent years trying to save the native birds. In October 2019, 14 kiwikiu were released into the Nakula Natural Area Reserve. Nearly all of them were later found or assumed dead, and with Maui no longer appearing to be a safe place for the birds, scientists began looking to other islands or the Mainland to house them and help regrow their population.
But the news hasn’t all been bad — last year, state and local conservationists when celebrated a lone male kiwikiu, released in 2019 and presumed dead, was found alive and singing in the reserve.
Stanton Enomoto, the Office of Native Hawaiian Relations’ senior program director, said that coming to the aid of these native species is like caring for a relative.
“It’s akin to ohana supporting an ill family member undergoing treatment here in Hawaii,” Enomoto said. “Ohana support for these bird species not only enhances their chance for recovery, but it sustains the biocultural relationship and preserves their legacy in the event they decline towards extinction.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at email@example.com.