Photo: ʻIʻiwi
ʻIʻiwi hopping along a clump of māʻohiʻohi (Stenogyne calaminthoides) and ʻākala (Rubus hawaiensis). - Photo: Ann Tanimoto Johnson

With its curvy salmon bill, scarlet plumage, and upside-down acrobatics, the ʻiʻiwi (Drepanis coccinea), or scarlet honeycreeper, is a stunning icon of Hawaiʻi’s thriving forests.

Photo: ʻŌhā wai
ʻŌhā wai (Clermontia peleana) is a critically endangered Hawaiian lobellioid. The closed dark-purple petals resemble an ʻiʻiwi bill. – Photo: Lisa L.K. Mason

In ancient society, the color red imbued strong mana (spiritual power) to aliʻi who wore it, and thus many battle garments and royal implements used ʻiʻiwi feathers and skins. Kia manu, or birdcatchers, primarily used a form of kēpau or pīlali (birdlime) on a pole to catch forest birds for feathers and food.

Like the honeycreepers, Hawaiian bellflowers (Lobellioids) are a great example of adaptive radiation in Hawaiian plants. The coevolution of ʻiʻiwi and some native lobelioids resulted in unique pollinator-plant relationships reflected in their similarly curved-shaped bill and flower structure.

Today, ʻiʻiwi’s beaks are slightly less curved, possibly because many species of lobelioids have declined or gone extinct, or with ʻiʻiwi feeding mostly on non-tubular flowers like ʻōhiʻa lehua and opportunistically nectar robbing from introduced species like banana poka.