By Meredith Enos, Kealaiwikuamoʻo, Kamehameha Schools
In classrooms, there are many ways to measure what students are learning. For Kumu Ben Catcho, Jr., of Nā Wai Ola Public Charter School, his sign came in the form of a Lego ʻiʻiwi bird created by one of his students after school.
“It all happened when a haumana who was brainstorming ideas for his manu project saw me pull out a new Lego set for my class,” Catcho said. “He approached me and asked for the Legos, and returned to his table and created an ʻiʻiwi! His creativity showed me an out-of-the-box way to express ʻike from the months of learning about our native honeycreepers.”
Similarly, a wide array of “out-of-the-box” thinking, from schools, environmentalists and policymakers may be the way to save these animals from imminent extinction.
This student was just one of thousands of students in 29 schools across the pae ʻāina who participated in a program that combined learning about ecosystem health, culture, environmental issues, and advocacy through focusing on the critically endangered Hawaiian honeycreepers.
Their efforts worked: August 8 was recognized by the Hawaiʻi State Legislature as Celebrate Hawaiian Honeycreepers Day across the state. Several events will raise the awareness of these important species and educate the broader community on how we can help their continued survival.
Once, over 50 endemic species of these birds called Hawaiʻi home, but only 17 remain today, with four species on the brink of extinction if nothing is done to stop the spread of avian malaria by mosquitos. One species, the ʻakikiki on Kauaʻi, has seen its numbers plummet in the last year from 40 individual birds down to just five remaining in the wild.
In response to this urgent threat, kumu, haumāna, and members of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project, Kauaʻi Forest Bird Recovery Project, American Bird Conservancy, Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species (CGAPS) and Kamehameha Schools worked for six months with haumāna on the legislative processes, through writing testimonies and conducting research on Hawaiʻi’s endemic honeycreepers.
Approximately 2,000 students submitted testimonies to the State House of Representatives, prompting the Hawaiʻi State Legislature to designate Aug. 8, 2023, as “Celebrate Honeycreepers Day” via HCR81.
“I have lived in Hawaiʻi, on the island of Oʻahu, for all 13 years of my life. Although I have never gotten the chance to see one of our native birds for myself, I know how beautiful and unique they all are – and once were,” Charis Pettiford, an 8th grade student at Moanalua Middle School testified. “They have served such a large part in keeping our forests alive, in watching over our islands long before people inhabited these lands. The least we can do is respect them by giving them this one day to be honored. Please consider this bill, for Hawaiʻi’s silent guardians.”
The designation of Hawaiian Honeycreeper Celebration Day is just one element of a longer, multi-pronged approach to both grow appreciation of our native birds, and also encourage everyday kamaʻāina to do their part in protecting these endangered species.
“In the last few months there have been many hearings in the state legislature relating to the efforts to save our endangered birds and this engagement of our local youth and native Hawaiians in particular has been very important,” Sen. Mazie Hirono said in a May 2023 hearing. “It’s been very moving because these are young people who are passionate about their desire to save these remaining native birds”
Inspired by this outpouring of support for the manu (birds), Hirono advocated for help at the federal level, and in June 2023, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced that $16 million in federal funding will be committed to the fight to protect the Hawaiian honeycreepers.
This crucial funding will further these priorities: captive care and establishing new bird populations, research and monitoring, engagement with the Native Hawaiian community and mosquito eradication. This last objective is particularly important, as avian malaria can kill a honeycreeper from a single mosquito bite, and has decimated the native bird population.
One of the most promising and quick interventions is the well-established method of introducing incompatible male mosquitos – which don’t bite – into an area to breed with the existing female population. These male mosquitos carry the Wolbacchia bacteria that occurs naturally in mosquitos. But the introduced mosquitos have a different strain of Wolbacchia, which means the two populations cannot create viable offspring and the mosquito population plummets as a result.
“This technique is used extensively to control the mosquito population in places where viruses such as Dengue fever threaten human life,” Luka Zavas, Birds, Not mosquitos outreach manager at the American Bird Conservancy, says. “It’s an innovation on an existing technique, and the research indicates that we can safely use this technique to help our honeycreepers.”
For his part, Catcho plans to continue working with his haumāna on conservation efforts. “We are teaching our students the power of their voices. When they combine their passion and creativity to the environment, they can make a difference in their communities.”
There are several ways to help our Hawaiian honeycreepers:
- Participate in Hawaiian Honeycreeper Celebration Day events:
Virtually on August 8, 2023 ; In person on Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Maui, and Hawaiʻi island.
- August 8: Public Showing Kauaʻi Community College, 6:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m.
- August 12: Kukui Grove Center, 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.
- August 12-16: Kauaʻi Society of Art Silent Art Auction at Kukui Grove Center
- August 8: Bishop Museum, 10:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.
- August 13: Honolulu Zoo, 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.
- August 27: Maui Nui Botanical Garden, 10:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.
- August 20: Panaewa Zoo, 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
- Learn more about the upcoming events and to sign up for updates, by visiting the Birds, Not Mosquitoes website. Go to https://www.birdsnotmosquitoes.org/celebrate808 or follow their social media accounts on Instagram and Facebook (@BirdsNotmosquitoes).
- Support efforts to eradicate mosquitos via the proposed intervention involving male mosquitos carrying the Wolbacchia virus.
- Make your home less hospitable to mosquitos by eliminating standing water, such as in gutters or outdoor items or landscaping, where rainwater can collect.
- Keep your yard clear of heavy brush: mosquitos prefer cool, dark areas. Cutting back brush also can dry up hidden puddles.
- Hikers, hunters, lei makers and others who visit forested areas can fill in standing holes, such as pig wallows or deep puddles where mosquitos lay their eggs.
Digital education resources and two presentations reviewing the Natural History of Hawaiian Honeycreepers and the Legislative Process are available on: www.birdsnotmosquitoes.org/.