If the Maui parrotbill ever had a Hawaiian name, no one now knows what it was. But after two years of study, conservationists and Hawaiian language experts have given it one: kiwikiu - pronounced with a soft "w."
The critically endangered little bird lives high on the wild, wet slopes of Haleakala, and a somewhat uncertain recent census suggests that only about 500 remain.
The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project in Olinda is studying the kiwikiu and trying to help the bird. The organization called on the Hawaiian Lexicon Committee for help in naming. The committee has proposed this dictionary entry: "Kiwikiu Maui parrotbill; the sound and name of the Maui parrotbill (Pseudonestor xanthophrys). Onomatopoeia."
Conservationists and Hawaiian language experts spent two years trying to come up with a Hawaiian name for the endangered Maui parrotbill. What they came up with was kiwikiu. Whatever the bird might have been called in ancient Hawaii has been lost. The kiwikiu live on the wet slopes of Haleakala. An estimated 500 birds remain.
In Hawaiian, kiwi means bent or curved as in the blade of a sickle, like the strongly bent beak that the parrotbill uses to dig insects out of bark. Kiu means to observe secretively as a spy, or it is also a cold, chilly wind, such as the brisk kiukiu breeze on the mountain's upper reaches near Makawao.
"Observe secretively" could apply both to the bird's hunt for bugs and to people's hunt for the bird.
Dusty Becker, an ornithologist with the recovery project, has been conducting an intense survey of the birds for three years, trying to determine such basic information as whether the population is stable.
She said she's not sure but is pessimistic for the long-term. The population around Hanawi might be holding its own, she said, but others are more doubtful.
However, if something isn't done to restore the native ohia-koa forests where the bird evolved, Becker said she expects the kiwikiu will be extinct within 50 to 100 years.
Besides reduction in habitat from lost forest cover, the birds are susceptible to avian malaria. The fact that the mosquitos that carry the disease cannot reproduce in cooler regions has preserved the kiwikiu and some other native birds, but as the climate gets warmer, the mosquitos are moving up the mountain.
That rapidly reduces the birds' habitat, since the mountain is shaped like "an upside-down ice cream cone." The higher the mosquito line pushes the birds, the narrower the total area gets until they reach the tip.
In order to devise a name, the Hawaiian Lexicon Committee and the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project worked with Ka Haka'ula O Ke'elikelani College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, 'Aha Punana Leo, the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, the National Tropical Botanical Garden, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit at the University of Hawaii and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The new name will be soon be listed online at www.ulukau.org (the online resource of Hawaiian language source materials) until the next edition of Mamaka Kaiao, the new Hawaiian dictionary.
A ceremony is planned for the fall to dedicate the name to the birds in their native forest and to present a mele inoa (name chant) to the kiwikiu.
Hanna Mounce of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project said that no one really knows how the bird missed being named, if that's what happened.
Its range used to be larger and once included Molokai and the lower elevations of East Maui, but since the introduction of avian malaria, the kiwikiu has been restricted to rugged and inaccessible high places. It was already rare when ornithologists began systematically surveying Maui's forests about a century ago.
The poouli, an even rarer bird, and was not observed by scientists until the 1970s and is now thought to be extinct, with just nine individual bird sightings ever recorded.
According to "Conservation Biology of Hawaiian Forest Birds," the birds' range "may encompass suboptimal habitat because of the relative scarcity of koa," which it prefers to forage in.
Becker said the survival of the kiwikiu depends on restoration of true native forest, not merely the ohia-koa alliance but the native understory plants as well. And it is not just the kiwikiu that is at risk.
Half the Hawaiian honeycreepers are already extinct, and almost all the rest are highly susceptible to malaria.
The birds are famously adaptive: Evolutionary biologists use the radiation of the birds from an ancestor (probably a finch from the South Pacific) into about 50 species of highly variable endemic birds as a classic example of how creatures can change to exploit new environments.
One or two honeycreepers show some developing resistance to malaria, Becker said, but for others to have a chance to do the same, they need a larger population to give more chances for mutations to take hold.
There is nothing unique about that problem, Becker said. She has worked in South America and Africa, and mountain birds are facing the same challenge there.
The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project works to help the kiwikiu by monitoring its population and lobbying for habitat restoration.
The honeycreeper, and other forest birds, also face threats from mammals like rats.
* Harry Eagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.