Saving Maui's Forest Birds
Hawaii’s native birds are among the most imperiled on earth. Habitat loss, invasive species, disease, and climate change have caused the extinction of dozens of native species. Now, an ambitious plan to eradicate mosquitos using “mosquito birth control” could be the native birds’ saving grace. But with honeycreepers like the Kiwikiu (Maui Parrotbill) projected to go extinct in the next decade, can conservationists control mosquitos in time?
The Bird Extinction Capital of the World
Approximately 5.5 million years ago, a species of Eurasian rosefinch flew or was blown to the Hawaiian Islands. Finding a diversity of unfilled niches, that one species radiated into 54 species of Hawaiian Honeycreeper. Like Darwin’s finches of the Galapagos, each honeycreeper evolved a specialized bill to suit its needs. There are nectar feeders with long, curved proboscises, insect hunters with small, sharp warbler bills, seed eaters with the thick bills of grosbeaks, and even pseudowoodpeckers which probe and scrape loose bark in search of insect larvae.
Once humans reached the islands everything changed. Habitat loss coupled with invasive species and diseases caused the extinction of 36 unique honeycreeper species. Only 18 species of honeycreeper remain.
Most insidious of all, the accidental introduction of mosquitos to Hawaii led to outbreaks of avian malaria in the naïve bird populations. Today, Hawaii’s native forest birds are only found at elevations above 4,500 feet where disease-carrying mosquitos cannot survive.
Mosquito Birth Control
As climate change warms the slopes of Haleakalā, the 10,000-foot shield volcano in East Maui, mosquitos are beginning to penetrate Maui’s last refuges.
The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project traps mosquitoes to track malaria presence as the insects move up slope. Mosquito trapping is just the beginning of an ambitious mosquito eradication plan. Using a quirk of insect biology, researchers have discovered a possible mosquito birth control.
Mosquitos with different strains of Wolbachia, a naturally occurring bacteria, cannot produce viable offspring. In the coming years, researchers plan to release millions of male mosquitos (which do not bite) with a strain of Wolbachia incompatible with female mosquitos, thus leading to a collapse in the mosquito population.
Picking Blue Berries at 6,000 feet
Introduced ungulates like Goats, Pigs, and Deer continue to wreak havoc on the native understory. To protect the critical habitat that forest birds depend on, nature preserves must be entirely fenced. In Waikamoi Preserve, The Nature Conservancy regularly inspects and maintains nineteen miles of fencing.
Fenced preserves allow the natural vegetation to flourish, providing ample food for native forest birds. The Nature Conservancy collects wild native fruits such as ʻŌhelo (a member of the blue berry family), 'Ōlapa, Koa, and Māmane to be planted in restoration sites across the island.
The Kiwikiu (formerly known as the Maui Parrotbill) is Maui’s most imperiled forest bird. For years, the population of Kiwikiu was assumed stable at 500 individuals within a 50 km² range. In 2017, that number was revised to 150 individuals within just 30 km². Analysis of Kiwikiu population viability suggests they will become extinct within the next ten years.
In 2019, the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project attempted to create a second population of Kiwikiu by translocating 14 wild and captive birds into the recently restored Nakula Natural Area Reserve. Tragically, all birds succumbed to malaria within days of release.
The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project has decided to capture the remaining wild Kiwikiu and house them in captivity until Mosquitos are controlled.
The Maui Bird Conservation Center currently houses some of the most imperiled birds on earth. They will expand their aviaries to temporarily accommodate the influx of wild birds.
Mosquito control is now the last hope for Maui’s native honeycreepers. If Mosquito populations cannot be suppressed, the Kiwikiu could join the ranks of the ‘Alalā, or Hawaiian Crow, which became extinct in the wild in 2002.
Telling the Story
I would be honored to collaborate on a story about the upcoming conservation work being done to save Maui’s forest birds. I believe a visually rich narrative about these efforts will serve to engage a broader audience and build support for saving the species native to Hawaii.
I would be very interested in following and photographing the work being done with mosquito birth control and release, as well as efforts to capture and maintain forest birds like the Kiwikiu and 'Ākohekohe.
The goal of this story would be to communicate the peril of Hawaii’s remaining ecosystems but also the important work being done by the passionate scientists and organizations striving to save them.