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Saving Maui's Forest Birds

Science-Conservation-Visual-Story

The Premise

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? 

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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.  

 

 

 

 

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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.   

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Kiwikiu 

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.  

Captivity  

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.

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Ryan Wagner

MS Wildlife Biology and Conservation

Photographer

Researcher

Writer

ryan.wagner2@wsu.edu

ryanbwagner.com

440.409.9803

ig: @ryanbwagner