By Léo Azambuja
Deep into the Alakaʻi Plateau, the crimson-red lehua blossom of the ‘ōhiʻa tree provides the food for the ‘i‘iwi, a Hawaiian honeycreeper sporting a long, curved bill, a body covered in scarlet-red feathers, and black wings and tail. Its call is as mesmerizing as its looks.
The ‘i‘iwi needs protection, along with more than 90 percent of the remaining forest birds endemic to Hawai‘i. Otherwise, these unique birds found nowhere else in the world will likely have the same fate of dozens of other Hawaiian forest bird species — extinction.
“The birds are an integral part of Kaua‘i,” said Lisa “Cali” Crampton, project coordinator for the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project. “We lose the birds, we lose our cultural heritage, we lose these important ecosystem drivers, we lose the forest.”
The birds, Crampton said, control insects in the forest, and pollinate trees and disperse seeds so the forest can regenerate. Without trees, the island would fall apart, because they play a key role in soaking water and doing flood control. Without trees, there would be “massive erosion” into the Pacific Ocean, she said.
“We can just think the birds are a nice to have; they’re a must to have,” Crampton said.
Before Polynesians arrived in the Hawaiian Islands, there were at least 113 species of birds endemic to Hawai‘i, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. By 1778, when Europeans first arrived in Hawai‘i, 48 species of birds had already been lost, and since then, at least 23 have gone extinct. Only a few of the remaining 42 endemic species aren’t considered vulnerable, threatened or endangered. Habitat loss, rat predation and introduced avian diseases were major contributors to the decline and demise of endemic birds.
At one point there were 16 forest bird species on Kaua‘i, according to KFBRP. Today, there are only eight species remaining; ‘akeke‘e, ‘akikiki, ‘anianiau, Kaua‘i ‘amakihi, Kaua‘i ‘elepaio, puaiohi, ‘apapane and ‘i‘iwi. All but the last two species are found only on Kaua‘i.
KFBRP is a collaboration between the State of Hawai‘i Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, and the nonprofit Garden Island Resource, Conservation & Development. This gives KFBRP flexibility to meet the needs of the birds, lets the project secure land access and permits more easily, allows different avenues to fundraise, and provides different gateways to the community, according to Crampton.
KFBRP promotes knowledge, appreciation and conservation of Kaua‘i’s forest birds, putting their focus on four forest birds; three Hawaiian honeycreepers (‘i‘iwi, ‘akikiki and ʻakekeʻe) and one thrush (puaiohi). All of them live in the forest uplands of Kokeʻe or in the Alakaʻi Swamp. The puaiohi, ʻakikiki and ʻakekeʻe are listed as “critically endangered,” and the ʻiʻiwi is listed as “threatened.”
The ʻiʻiwi was once found statewide from coastal lands to the forest uplands. A USGS study published in 2013 estimates there are about 600,000 ʻiʻiwi left on the Big Island and Maui, mainly on high elevations. On Kauaʻi, their population is in steep decline with only about 2,500 ʻiʻiwi left.
The puaiohi, or the small Kauaʻi trush, has a short tail, a white eye-ring and a relatively simple song when compared to its extinct relative, the kamaʻo, or large Kauaʻi trush. A 2017 U.S. Geological Survey/KFBRP study counted 494 puaiohi in the wild. The puaiohi appears to be less succesptible to avian malaria than the honeycreepers. Their major threat is rat predation, which affects nesting females more than males.
The ʻakikiki is a tiny honeycreeper. Their bodies are dark grey and olive above, with a witish under. The numbers for the ʻakikiki might have been nosediving quicker than researchers previously thought, with perhaps less than 500 individuals left in the wild, according to Crampton.
The ʻakekeʻe are greenish above and yellow under, with a yellow crown and a black mask. Recent surveys show their population to be less than 1,000 — a steep decline from about 5,000 in the 1970s.
In the past, the USGS did most of the conservation and research on endangered birds. A new project took over the task in 2003, working with both seabirds and forest birds. In 2006, the project split, and KFBRP was created.
USGS researchers in the 1990s were the first ones to realize the puaiohi’s severe situation, and that a conservation program should be implemented. They collected about 16 eggs and transferred them a facility at the San Diego Zoo in California. The USGS would then release the grown pauiohi into the wild. Both those projects were handed to KFBRP.
The USGS also did the first mosquito and avian disease surveys on Kaua‘i, setting an important baseline that is now used to measure against new surveys. By taking blood samples from birds and collecting mosquitoes, researchers were able to establish avian malaria was already present in the Alakaʻi Plateau at very low levels in 1997.
“We published an important paper with USGS in 2014 showing that from 1997 to 2013 what we call the prevalence — the frequency of which birds that you capture show signs of malaria — had increased dramatically just in those 16 years,” Crampton said. “Having that baseline data was really fundamental to being able to show that malaria and other bird diseases are critical components of the declines in the forest bird populations.”
By comparing USGA data from 16 years ago and contemporary data, researchers can see the Alakaʻi Plateau is experiencing rising temperatures and less rainfall, creating more favorable conditions for mosquitoes to develop from eggs to adults. This means a continuous loss of safe habitat for Hawaiian honeycreepers, which evolved without natural defenses against mosquito borne diseases.
Part of the solution, Crampton said, was to remove some birds from the Alakaʻi Plateu and keep them in mosquito-proof cages in facilities on Maui and the Big Island. Those are the same facilities that are raising the ʻalalā, or Hawaiian crow, which had been extinct in the wild. A captive-breeding project reintroduced close to 100 ʻalalā on Big Island’s forests. Despite being technically the most endangered Hawaiian bird, the ʻalalā now has a real shot at recovering.
Despite many threats to Hawai‘i’s endemic birds, Crampton remains confident in a positive outcome.
“I think that the future for most of our species, if not all of our species, is really great, because the solution to the avian diseases, the mosquito borne diseases, is right around the corner,” said Crampton, adding in the next couple years they should have the tools to control mosquitoes at the Alakaʻi Plateau.
“It uses bacteria that naturally occur in mosquito guts to render the eggs infertile, so the mosquitoes can’t reproduce and their numbers nosedive,” she said. The plan is to release male mosquitoes that have the bacteria. Unlike females, the males don’t bite and therefore don’t transmit diseases.
By adding other habitat management activities such as conservation fencing and rat trapping, Crampton said she thinks there is enough resilience in the system for the birds to make it until those sterile mosquitoes are released.
Besides cultural and ecological drivers to save Hawaiʻi’s endemic birds, there is also an economic reason — birding.
“Birding has become a major economic venture, and that’s true for Kaua‘i,” Crampton said. “Some people come here not for the beaches, not for the turtles, not for the monk seals; they come for the birds, to view birds they can only see on Kaua‘i, nowhere else in the world.”
We need to make sure these birds are there for all of us, including our kids, to enjoy, and to make sure we still have Kauaʻi as a place to call home, she said.
In late February, the University of Hawa‘i at Mānoa’s Wind Esemble will perform two free concerts at Kauaʻi Community College Performing Arts Center. The concerts educate about Hawaiʻi’s native birds and promote their conservation through science, music and art.
The Symphony of the Hawaiian Birds will be performed for the general public at KCC PAC on Sunday, Feb. 23 at 4 p.m. Visit tinyurl.com/SymphonyKauai for free tickets. On Feb. 24, the concert will be for schools. Teachers should visit symphonyofthehawaiianbirds.com to register their classes for the concert.
Visit kauaiforestbirds.org for more information on KFBRP.