Experts discuss our avian emergency

14 April 2004 - 9:30pm

Display of dead Hawaiian birds: All but one are extinct -
The O'o, Kauai Akialoa, O'u, Kauai Nukupu'u, Puaiohi & Kamao

Remember the Dodo
by Patricia Tummons for Honolulu Weekly

     "When I first arrived in Kona,” wrote R.C.L. Perkins at the turn of the 20th century, “the great ‘Ohi’a trees, at an elevation of 2,500 feet, were a mass of bloom and each of them was literally alive with hordes of crimson ‘apapane and scarlet ‘i‘iwi; while continually crossing from the top of one great tree to another, the ‘o‘o could be seen on the wing sometimes six or eight at a time…. Feeding on the fruit of the ‘ie‘ie could be seen the Hawaiian Crow …and the ‘o‘u in great abundance. The picture of this noisy, active, and …quarrelsome assembly…was one never to be forgotten.”

     A century later, a visitor to the same spot might see the colorful trees and the vining ‘ie’ie. The Hawaiian crow, or ‘alala, is probably extinct in the wild. The ‘o’u was last seen a quarter century ago — on Kaua’i. Perkins was one of the last people to record spotting the ‘o‘o.

     Statewide, the losses of native forest birds are staggering. Twenty species of Hawai’i’s native forest birds appear on the federal list of endangered species, while two more are species of concern. Of those 22 species, 11 have not been seen for more than a decade; one — the Bishop’s ‘o’o of Moloka’i — was last spotted a century ago. The po’ouli has a known population of three individuals. The ‘alala is down to about three dozen birds held in captive propagation facilities.

     The plight of Hawaiian forest birds is spelled out in grim detail in the Draft Revised Recovery Plan for the ‘Alala and the Draft Revised Recovery Plan for Hawaiian Forest Birds. Published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year, the plans call for far-reaching, expensive, long-term actions to protect Hawai’i’s rare birds. For the ‘alala, the cost of efforts intended to lead to the bird’s recovery are pegged at nearly $12 million through 2007.

     I spoke with Fish and Wildlife Service experts: biologists Jeff Burgett, Eric VanderWerf and Jay Nelson. And Barbara Maxfield, public information officer for the Pacific Island office of the service.

     How much money is in the 2005 federal budget for your two plans?

     Maxfield: We don’t even know what’s in this year’s budget, because the office doesn’t have our budget yet. Yes, the president’s budget does propose cuts in the endangered species program, but it also proposes almost $71 million in new partnership programs. Projects here in Hawai‘i generally compete fairly well in some of those partnerships.
     Are the state and private landowners cooperating in tasks like fencing, removal of ungulates, reforestation?

     VanderWerf: In general, the state is supportive of recovery efforts, at least on lands zoned conservation. And private landowners — some are responsive; others we haven’t heard anything from. And there are going to be some who are not going to like the actions proposed.
     What are some of the ongoing recovery actions?

     Nelson: On the Big Island, the Saddle Road realignment mitigation agreement is providing federal money for translocation of the palila from the western slope population over to the north slope. A December reintroduction of captive-reared birds was pretty successful. Ten birds were released; seven or eight still survive. And they stayed in the area, which we really wanted to occur.

     VanderWerf: For palila, there’s also a fence going up in that same area to exclude cattle. There’s another big fencing project on Maui that the state is spearheading in conjunction with the National Park Service, to protect [thousands of] acres at Kahikinui and Nu’u. We’re hoping that that’s going to be a suitable site for release of Maui parrotbills.
     There’s also predator control going on for O’ahu ‘elepaio, for po’ouli and other birds at Hanawi [Maui].

     Nelson: Puaiohi releases [on Kaua’i] have been ongoing; this is the sixth year. We’ve had pretty good success, with a more than 50 percent survival rate.
     Many say you should leave behind species with little chance of recovery or you should drop species that haven’t been seen for the last 50 years.

     Burgett: More and more, we realize that we get the most bang for the buck with cooperators that lend in-kind services or especially land areas that have a larger area to play with, that benefit multiple species. This isn’t rocket science that we need to conserve as much intact area as we can as habitat for the most things.

     VanderWerf: The po’ouli is often touted as an example of a basket-case species that we’re wasting money on. That’s unfair. Almost all the actions that have been taken for that species — fencing, predator control, general mist-netting — are directed at the habitat within Hanawi . Most of [the money] is directed at a suite of species.
     Some lands are leased for grazing by the DLNR or the DHHL. Has the state given a thumbs-up to plans to pull these lands out of pasture use and develop a restoration program for them?

     Nelson: DHHL is working with our partners program to develop a management plan for the Kanakaleonui bird corridor. There seems to be progress there in removing those lands from leased ranching and moving toward conservation.
     What about DLNR?

     VanderWerf: There are biologists in the state that recognize the importance of those parcels and are supportive of trying to restore them. But the state has a broad mandate.
     What is the single biggest threat to Hawaiian birds?

     Burgett: Predators. We have no good long-term mechanism for large-scale predator reduction — rats, cats, mongoose.
     A fence is probably the most efficient way [to keep animals out of an area] because it’s non-selective. Any of these predator baiting or trapping programs are species specific. In New Zealand, they take an aggressive stand in terms of toxicants and fencing. But that all takes money.     

This is an abridged version of an article from the March issue of Environment Hawai‘i. For a sample copy, visit


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