Without intervention Kauaʻi’s highly endangered ʻakikiki and akekeʻe face extinction

High atop the mountains of Kauaʻi sits the Alakaʻi plateau, a native forest dotted with bogs that receives 200 inches of rain each year. Here, you can find hāhā, a rare Hawaiian lobelia with curved, brightly colored flowers that resemble the beaks of native birds such as ʻiʻiwi – a striking similarity that is the result of millions of years of evolution.

Sadly, disease and climate change now threaten the native birds that call the Alakaʻi home – and at least two of them face extinction within the next decade. This summer will be a crucial time for the survival of these two bird species: the ʻakikiki and the akekeʻe.

There are only about 40 ʻakikiki left in the wild with another 48 in captivity. Experts believe the bird could go extinct this year or by 2025. “Based on these estimates, this is do or die time for the ʻakikiki,” said Dr. Lisa “Cali” Crampton, who has been leading the Kauaʻi Forest Bird Recovery Project since April 2010.

While akekeʻe are also declining at an alarming rate, their wild population is larger, with an estimated 640 birds. The akekeʻe has more time, but experts say they could go extinct between 2025 and 2030.

Both species belong to a group of small birds known as Hawaiian honeycreepers, all of which have declined in recent decades due to the spread of avian malaria, a disease carried by non-native mosquitoes. Scientists say more than 55 native honeycreepers once existed in Hawaiʻi. Today, there are just 17 species left – and 10 of them are endangered.

Crampton’s team conducts a population survey of Kauaʻi’s forest birds every five years. The latest one was completed earlier this year. “We’ve already noticed this year that there have been very striking declines in a number of the honeycreeper species,” Crampton said.

Photo: Speaker in the forest canopy
Conservationists use speakers to broadcast bird calls and lure the birds close to their nets.

“Just based on the raw numbers of birds, there are fewer now than there were five years ago of the other honeycreeper species. When we do analyze those data, it could be pretty grim. We could be looking at taking some pretty dramatic actions for some of the other species too.”

At an elevation of 4,000 feet, the Alakaʻi and other historically cooler, higher-elevation native forests used to be too cold for mosquitoes. But warming temperatures brought on by climate change have allowed the insects to reach further ma uka.

“Our native bird species evolved in isolation on the Hawaiian Islands in very unique conditions that didn’t require a lot of defenses against outside diseases or predators,” said Mele Khalsa, The Nature Conservancy in Hawaiʻi’s (TNC) natural resource manager on Kauaʻi. TNC manages about 5,000 acres on the Alakaʻi.

“For millions of years, this was their existence. From the time the birds first arrived, up until fairly recently, avian malaria was not a thing. It wasnʻt until the early to mid-1800s, during the whaling era, that mosquitos and avian malaria arrived on our shores.”

With no natural defenses to protect them, native birds can die from one infected mosquito bite.

Given the pace and scale at which Hawaiʻi is losing its honeycreepers, the conservation community is focused on rapidly driving down mosquito populations using a tool called the Incompatible Insect Technique. A statewide coalition of government, private and nonprofit groups called Birds, Not Mosquitoes (BNM) has been advocating for the use of this technique for several years.

The technique, which does not involve any genetic modification, takes advantage of a quirk in insect biology: when two insects of the same species carry different, incompatible strains of bacteria and mate, their eggs do not hatch. This approach has already been used for decades to control fruit flies in southern California. As recently as last year, a similar technique was also used with mosquitoes to reduce cases of human dengue fever in Singapore and Australia.

In Hawaiʻi, the technique will involve rearing male mosquitoes that carry a naturally occurring, incompatible strain of Wolbachia bacteria. Those will be released to mate with wild female mosquitoes so that they lay eggs that do not hatch.

“The result is much smaller populations of mosquitoes. Male mosquitoes do not bite and cannot spread diseases,” according to a statement from the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).

Through BNM, the groups working to save Hawaiian honeycreepers have been sharing the birds’ plight since 2017. The coalition has had a presence on social media, in classrooms, at the state legislature and at community events as large as the Merrie Monarch Festival.

Photo: Luka Zavas
Lukanicole Zavas, American Bird Conservancy’s Birds Not Mosquitoes outreach manager. – Courtesy Photos

Lukanicole Zavas, the American Bird Conservancy’s BNM outreach manager, said the public has been largely supportive of their efforts. “It’s a small minority that’s very vocal about their opposition, but everybody else we have spoken to is very supportive and knows if something isn’t done, then we will lose the birds,” she said.

The National Park Service and DLNR gained approval in March 2023 to use the technique on federal and state lands in East Maui, after the Hawaiʻi Board of Land and Natural Resources approved the project’s Final Environmental Assessment. Like Kauaʻi, Maui is home to two honeycreeper species facing extinction – the kiwikiu and ʻākohekohe.

The team working on recovery on Kauaʻi is several months out from completing the same regulatory process as Maui. The assessment is the first hurdle in successfully deploying the incompatible mosquitoes. Assuming Kauaʻi’s environmental assessment is approved, the field teams must also conduct a small-scale study to track the movements and behaviors of the incompatible mosquitoes in the wild, Crampton said.

If the study goes well, the technique could be used in the spring of 2024, at the earliest. After that, ongoing deployments will depend on securing more funding.

In addition to getting the technique out in the field, there are ongoing efforts to raise “insurance” populations of ʻakikiki and akekeʻe in captivity. Starting in 2015, the birds’ eggs were brought to the Maui and Keauhou Bird Conservation Centers, both run by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

The akekeʻe nests proved much more difficult to locate, resulting in fewer eggs collected, said Crampton. Once in captivity, the ʻakikiki had more success than the akekeʻe in terms of hatching and reaching adulthood. The team continues to collect ʻakikiki eggs, and possibly adults later this year, for breeding in captivity.

“We believe we can capture enough genetic diversity that the ʻakikiki population should be able to sustain itself without inbreeding,” Crampton said. “There’s really a good chance that there will be a robust flock of ʻakikiki ready to recolonize the Alakaʻi once we’ve controlled mosquitoes, which is the goal.”

In spite of dispiriting predictions for the birds’ survival in the wild, Khalsa and others expressed an optimism rooted in a cultural reverence for the birds. Keiki and kūpuna alike recognize what Hawaiʻi stands to lose with the birds’ extinction.

Photo: Sabra Kakua
Kumu Sabra Kauka, cultural practitioner and Hawaiian studies teacher at Island School.

“Hawaiian culture and our native birds have been connected ever since we’ve been in these islands. They have been an important part of our culture, our beliefs, our spirit, our practices. And this is why it’s so important to us that they exist,” said Kumu Sabra Kauka, a cultural practitioner and Hawaiian studies teacher at Island School on Kauaʻi.

“You’ve seen all the beautiful feathered capes and helmets for aliʻi. All of these things were made from the birds’ feathers. That’s just an indication of how much we treasured them and hope to see them continue to live. We’ve lost so many, it’s just disturbing.” Kauka said she supports all of the efforts to save the birds, including the mosquito-suppression technique.

Khalsa, who grew up on Kauaʻi, said Hawaiʻi’s culture of mālama ʻāina keeps her optimistic about the birds’ survival. “I do feel like here in Hawaiʻi we understand the value of our native species in a way that goes beyond appreciating their beauty,” she said. “There are deep cultural connections that people have here to the species on a generational level. That makes a huge difference. Respect for the ʻāina is so intrinsic to our culture.”

During this past legislative session, bird advocates – including many keiki – successfully petitioned state lawmakers to pass a resolution to create a day to honor these native birds and on Aug. 8, 2023, Hawaiʻi will celebrate its first “Hawaiian Honeycreeper Day.”

“What really touched my heart was [that] these students not only went to the resolution hearings, they also went to the Board of Land and Natural Resources to listen about the East Maui [environmental assessment],” said Zavas. “They heard this was going on and came and shared their voices there too. It really showed the support for these amazing birds.”

Everyone has a role to play in the recovery of the birds, notes Crampton. Speaking out publicly in support of the birds, changing personal habits to reduce climate change, or reducing mosquito populations at home – these are all ways people can make a positive difference, she said.

Back out in the wild, the birds persist in their fight for survival.

Crampton shared the story of Pākele, a female ʻakikiki who has rebuilt her nest four times with two different mates this season. In their first attempt, the eggs hatched and their chicks lived for six days, but a windstorm in March blew the nest out of the tree killing the babies. The pair then built a second nest, where they laid more eggs. Those eggs were collected and brought into captivity by Crampton’s team. The pair then built a third nest, which was likely raided by predators. After Pākele’s mate died from avian malaria, she found a new mate and built a fourth nest with him.

“The birds are out there day after day, trying to have babies, trying to find food, trying to find a mate. They keep going, so we keep going,” Crampton said. “And it’s our kuleana. It really is. We put the birds in this pickle. We brought these [mosquito] species to this island. We are the engines of climate change that are allowing the mosquitoes to increase their range up into the forest bird habitat.

“It’s our duty to save these birds.”