ʻAkikiki are one of the most critically endangered bird species in the entire world. They are particularly vulnerable to avian malaria and, as of July 2023, it was estimated that only five individual ʻakikiki remain in the wild. They are found only on Kauaʻi in native forests at the highest elevations and they nest in the crowns of ʻōhiʻa trees. – Photos: Bret Nainoa Mossman

By Jonee Leināʻala Kaina Peters

In the upper elevations of old growth native forests resplendent with ʻōhiʻa and koa, mist lightly drifts through the under canopy of ʻamaʻu and other ferns.

There, in the cool silence, it is possible to hear the sweet songs of the native Hawaiian forest birds that still inhabit our forests. To be so favored as to catch a glimpse of a tiny, jewel-colored ʻapapane, ʻiʻiwi or ʻamakihi is an experience so sublime that an emotional response is inevitable.

Our native forests evolved in isolation over millions of years, becoming one of the world’s most unique ecosystems and host to a plethora of native species, including an incredibly diverse population of endemic birds found nowhere else on the planet.

“Our native birds are the link, the connections between ma uka and ma kai, providing nutrients for the mala and balance to the ecosystems,” said Hanalei Watershed Hui Executive Director Makaʻala Kaʻaumoana.

Prior to the arrival of humans in Hawaiʻi, there were at least 113 endemic bird species – waterbirds, seabirds, migratory birds, and forest birds – living across the pae ʻāina. Hawaiian honeycreepers, in particular, are a stunning example of adaptive radiation – the evolution of a species from a common ancestor into a wide variety of types – with at least 59 sub-species known to have once existed.

Sadly, Hawaiʻi has the unfortunate distinction of being an epicenter for extinction of its native species, and has even been dubbed the “Extinction Capital of the World.”

Not all species extinctions in our pae ʻāina occurred after Western contact. Hawaiʻi’s virgin ecosystem was so fragile and unique that 48 of the original 113 endemic bird species were extinct prior to the arrival of Europeans in 1778.

After Western contact, however, the rate of extinction of our native species greatly accelerated. At least 32 additional species of native Hawaiian birds have become extinct since 1778 and nearly all remaining native bird species are on the Endangered Species Act list, considered either endangered or highly endangered. Only two native forest bird species are described as having “healthy” populations – the ʻapapane and Hawaiʻi Island ʻamakihi.

These unique birds evolved for millennia adapting specifically to Hawaiʻi’s equally unique ecosystems. They thrived without any predators, diseases, or assaults on their habitat and, thus, many species quickly succumbed when confronted with rapid, sometimes violent, changes to their environment.

Habitat loss via unchecked development and destruction of the ʻāina has been the most egregious change, beginning with the denuding of Hawaiʻi’s native forests for sugar plantations and ranching in the 19th century.

Westerners also brought in ungulates (cattle, deer, goats) whose grazing further diminished native Hawaiian forests. They also introduced predators (feral cats, mice, Norway and “roof” rats, and mongoose) that prey on native birds and their eggs. In addition, the introduction of invasive plant species has overwhelmed many of our native forests and supplanted the specific trees, flowers and insects that provide food for our native forest birds and upon which they rely for their survival.

The most recent threat to our remaining native forest birds is a direct result of global climate change.

As temperatures have warmed, non-native mosquitos are encroaching into higher elevations than before and breaching the last bastions of native forest birds. These mosquitos carry avian malaria and avian pox – diseases that are decimating some of the remaining populations of native forest birds.

In October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced the de-listing of 21 species from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) list due to extinction. Of the 21 species that were removed, eight of these species are endemic Hawaiian birds (see sidebar).

“Federal protection came too late to reverse these species’ decline, and it’s a wake-up call on the importance of conserving imperiled species before it’s too late,” said USFWS Director Martha Williams in a press release.

“The extinction of eight native Hawaiian bird species confirms a somber reality that conservationists have feared for some time,” said Hawaiʻi Audubon Society Vice President Rich Downs. “[It] serves as a poignant reminder of the urgency to intensify our efforts to protect the remaining endangered Hawaiian bird species from a similar fate.”

Several of the native birds declared extinct were known for their unusual features or their colorful feathers. For example, the Kauaʻi ʻakialoa had an exceptionally long downward curved bill giving them the ability to forage for insects found under tree bark, lichen and tree moss. Their long bills also gave them the ability to drink the nectar from the center of ʻōhā (lobelia flowers).

The Kauaʻi ʻōʻō was captured for its brilliant yellow feathers then released. Their feathers were used to craft ʻahu ʻula (cloaks), mahiole (helmets), kāhili, and lei hulu. And Kākāwahie were favored for their vermillion-colored feathers, also used in feather work for aliʻi.

“Many of the species recently declared extinct I only learned about from images and books. Still, I mourn their loss,” reflected Hawaiʻi Island biologist Rae Okawa. “I also think about what Hawaiʻi would be like if more native species meet the same fate – no more cries of the ʻuaʻu, no more prehistoric presence of ʻiwa overhead, no more flashes of brilliant scarlet from ʻiʻiwi giving chase in old growth ʻōhiʻa forests. To have future generations grow up learning about these species only from memories, like I did, would be a disservice to them and further tragedy for the biodiversity of our islands.”

Our kūpuna were careful managers of our forests and this extended to the way that feathers were collected. Forest birds were not killed for their feathers. The snaring, plucking of feathers, and releasing of the birds was entrusted to the kia manu, or bird catcher.

Kia manu spent months in the upland forests, observing the birds and learning their habits. There were several methods for capturing the tiny birds, but most involved the use of sticky sap placed on tree branches near clusters of flowers to ensnare the birds when they alighted to feed. Kia manu would take no more than three to five feathers from each bird, then wipe their feet clean and release them back into the forest.

The last kia manu was the Rev. Henry B. Nālimu from Pāpaʻaloa on Hawaiʻi Island who passed away in 1934 at 99-years-old. The loss of our birds includes the loss of traditions and the moʻolelo associated with them.

Fortunately, there is some good news. A naturally occurring bacteria, Wolbachia, is able to stop mosquito reproduction. Scientists have developed a technique called Incompatible Insect Technology (IIT). It is a process wherein male mosquitoes are infected with Wolbachia and released into the ecosystem to mate with female mosquitos. Because the males are sterile, the insects are prevented from reproducing.

Conservationists believe that IIT is currently our best chance to save our remaining native Hawaiian forest birds from extinction by slowing or preventing the transmittal of these devastating mosquito-borne diseases. Downs notes that the IIT program is a critical step “to prevent further irreversible losses and secure the future of Hawaiʻi’s avian diversity.”

IIT mosquitos have already been released on Maui and Kauaʻi, thanks to an emergency exemption issued in April 2023 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at the request of the Hawaiʻi Department of Agriculture. There are high hopes that these efforts will prevent extinction of the ʻakikiki (the Kauaʻi honeycreeper pictured on page 16) whose numbers are so low (only five known birds) that they could become extinct within a year.

Scientists and environmentalists are monitoring IIT release areas to collect data and evaluate impacts and cost effectiveness. As further releases are completed, the technique will give the birds and scientists time to regroup, develop breeding facilities, captive care programs and relocation services.

Despite the promise of IIT, a recent glitch has been obstruction and a lawsuit (Hawaiʻi Unites and Tina Lia v. Board of Land and Natural Resources, State of Hawaiʻi, and Department of Land and Natural Resources) by an organization known as “Hawaiʻi Unites.”

The group is trying to prevent the release of the IIT mosquitos claiming it will harm the environment, people, and native birds. However, scientists on the front lines of the efforts to save Hawaiʻi’s native birds have thoroughly investigated the technique and are confident that the only risk the infected male mosquitos pose is to female mosquitos.

The ESA was enacted in 1973 and is credited with helping to save hundreds of plant and animal species from extinction – in concert with the efforts of private citizens, Indigenous communities, local and state governments, and conservation and environmental organizations.

It is heartbreaking that for so many of our native bird species, protection came too late. However, today we have the tools, knowledge, and ability to save the native birds that remain. Swift action is needed to ensure that our forests will forever echo with the songs of our native birds to delight and inspire future generations.

“When we lose our native and endemic species to extinction, we are not just witnessing the human- driven end to millions of years of evolution. We are watching the very essence and soul of Hawaiʻi Nei fade away forever,” said Sierra Club Hawaiʻi Director Wayne Tanaka.

“We must double down on efforts to protect our remaining native species at risk of permanent loss, including by taking radical stands against the drivers of climate destabilization and its impacts. By saving our native plants and wildlife we also save ourselves – physically, spiritually, culturally.”

Auē Auē Auē

These eight native Hawaiian forest birds were declared extinct in October 2023. Although many had not been spotted for decades, conservationists held out hope that small populations might still exist. A species is considered extinct when “there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died.”

Photo: ʻĀkepa
ʻĀkepa (Maui)
Listed 1970; Last confirmed sighting 1988
Painting: John Gerrard Keulemans @1900, birdfinding.info
Photo: ʻAkialoa
ʻAkialoa (Kauaʻi)
Listed 1967; Last confirmed sighting 1960s
Painting: Frederick Frohawk 1899, birdfinding.info
Photo: Kākāwahie
Kākāwahie (Molokaʻi)
Listed: 1970; Last confirmed sighting: 1963
Painting: John Gerrard Keulemans @1900, Wikipedia
Photo: Kāmaʻo
Kāmaʻo (Kauaʻi)
Listed 1970; Last confirmed sighting 1987
Painting: John Gerrard Keulemans @1900, Wikipedia
Photo: Nukupuʻu
Nukupuʻu (Kauaʻi)
Listed 1970; Last confirmed sighting 1899
Painting: John Gerrard Keulemans @1900, Wikipedia
Photo: Nukupuʻu
Nukupuʻu (Maui)
Listed 1970; Last confirmed sighting 1996
Painting: John Gerrard Keulemans @1900, Wikipedia
Photo: ʻŌʻō
ʻŌʻō (Kauaʻi)
Listed 1967; Last confirmed sighting 1987
Painting: John Gerrard Keulemans @1900, Wikipedia
Photo: Poʻouli
Poʻouli (Maui)
Listed 1975; Last confirmed sighting 2004
Photo: Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project