Updated: January 30, 2023
A bird rescue team left on a 10-day trip to a remote field camp in the Kauaʻi mountains, desperate to find two critically endangered Hawaiian honeycreepers, the ‘akikiki.
Last year, biologists monitoring the area at Halehaha recorded a shocking drop in the number of ‘akikiki. The population of more than 70 birds recorded in 2015 had declined to just five. By June this year, only two of the tiny forest birds remained in the area.
Researchers have named the two banded birds Abby and Carrot.
Data from Halehaha, combined with data from other field sites on Kaua’i where ‘akikiki numbers appear more stable, suggest that Halehaha is currently unsafe for them due to the presence of the mosquito-carrying disease, avian malaria.
This disease is believed to be the primary cause of the decline, which has decimated the ‘akikiki population, leading to estimates of the species going extinct in the wild as soon as next year, according to a press release from the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
The five-person rescue team is comprised of staff from the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project and a representative from the state’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife and the University of Hawai‘i Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit.
Field Crew Leader Tyler Winter of the Kauaʻi Forest Bird Recovery Project said the team is trying to locate and capture Abby and Carrot.
Abby is the almost two-year-old offspring of Carrot, a male, and Na Pua, an un-banded female. As of last December, they’d produced two chicks, one of which was captured late last year and flown to the Maui Bird Conservation Center, operated by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.
“Although she has a female name, we’re not certain of Abby’s sex,” Winter said. “In the last four to five months, unfortunately we have not spotted Na Pua. We expect to encounter the other two and hopefully the third and get them all into safety before avian malaria fells them, like so many others of their species.”
Justin Hite, the field supervisor for the recovery project, said: “The only thing more devastating than the sudden disappearance of ‘akikiki over the last few years is realizing that the exact same thing is coming for the rest of Hawaiian honeycreepers in the very near future.
“At this point the ‘akikiki’s chances are bleak…very bleak. But the ‘akeke’e and the ‘anianiau do not have to suffer the same fate. They will, if we do not act. That is certain.”
All year, survey teams have been trapping mosquitoes on Kaua‘i, Maui and the Big Island to produce data on insect population distribution. This will help inform management decisions for a proposed project to introduce incompatible male mosquitoes into the forest habitats of honeycreeper species, which will suppress mosquito reproduction and lead to smaller mosquito populations.
Cara Thow, the state avian disease research supervisor for Hawai‘i Island, joined the search and rescue effort to lend her skill in banding the tiny birds.
“Bringing them into captivity is the best shot for the species, because otherwise they are going to succumb to avian malaria,” Thow said. “This really brings it home for the work we’re doing on the Big Island, and the work survey teams are doing across the state. If we can’t control the mosquitoes, extinction is the trajectory we are looking at for all the Hawaiian honeycreepers.
“We need to up our game.”
To try to save the endangered birds, Hite said the team hopes people will support the release of incompatible male mosquitoes to drive down the population of bird-killing malaria-infected mosquitoes.
“This is the only conservation action that will not just help stop the impending extinction of these birds, it could even allow them to expand back out into areas they’ve already disappeared from,” Hite said.
If the team is successful in capturing the birds, they’ll join 36 other adult ‘akikiki at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. The hope is captive breeding the population will be safe and produce enough birds to be able to release some back into the wild once avian malaria is under control.