Slightly larger than a sparrow with a yellow face and breast and olive-green back, the Maui parrotbill or kiwikiu still is formidable in appearance. Its large curved parrot bill appears capable of a painful bite. But few in Hawaii have ever sighted a kiwikiu, isolated in the cloud forest habitat high on the northeast slopes of Haleakala where the estimates are of only 500 left in the world.
Listed as endangered, there is hope for recovery. A pair of Maui-based researchers - Laura Berthold and Hanna Mounce - are leading the effort of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project to restore habitat for the kiwikiu.
They are not alone. The forest bird project involves state and federal conservation agencies as well as private landowners of the East Maui Watershed Partnership. But Berthold and Mounce are the boots on the muddy ground, scanning the Waikamoi/Hanawi koa-ohia forests to gather data on kiwikiu.
"We're trying to add to the knowledge of their behavior in the wild," Berthold explains. "Every time I get to see one and follow one to study their behavior, it's always so interesting, especially when we see how parents feed their babies."
She is getting to know them personally, citing one female that has produced four chicks, clearly one of the top breeders in the tiny population. The effort allows Berthold and Mounce to advise the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program in its captive breeding efforts, with information on how a mated pair would behave in the wild.
The captive breeding program in the former Olinda prison camp has had limited success with the kiwikiu. But even if it were more successful in persuading captive pairs to reproduce, there is little habitat remaining for birds to be released to expand its population.
Kiwikiu, as with all of the endemic Hawaiian honeycreepers, demonstrate the evolutionary process known as adaptive radiation. From a few birds blown to the islands, honeycreepers evolved to fill niches in the predator-free island environment. Many species, such as the iiwi and apapane, feed on flower nectar as well as insects. A few primarily eat seeds or fruits.
Kiwikiu are among the forest birds that feed exclusively on insects, with the kiwikiu specializing in beetles and larvae found in native trees and shrubs. Their parrot bills crush branches and tear through bark to get to the insects.
Being a specialist is a factor in their declining numbers, limiting them to koa-ohia forest habitats that have been displaced by human agricultural activity, or severely degraded by introduced pigs and grazing animals. Adding to the threat, predatory rats infest the native forests that remain, while mosquitoes carry diseases to which most endemic birds have no resistance.
With dwindling numbers, the kiwikiu also is threatened by loss of genetic diversity, when inbreeding of closely related birds can lead to defects that affect their survival. That is the problem Berthold and Mounce focus on, taking blood samples from birds in the wild as well as the captives at the Olinda breeding facility to establish what level of genetic diversity remains.
The goal detailed in a state Forest Bird Recovery Workplan issued in May is to establish a new population on the south side of Haleakala, within the 1,420-acre Nakula Natural Area Reserve set aside in 2011 by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. It encompasses a remnant koa-ohia forest now being fenced off from feral grazers, with replanting projects seeking to rebuild the native habitat. Eventually, the plan is to reintroduce endemic forest birds to leeward slopes where the koa forests were cut down over the past three centuries to be turned into dryland fields and pastures.
With government funding limited, Berthold and Mounce are engaged in their own drive to finance the genetics sampling through an online Rocket Hub program, with a goal of $14,040. "Donations will go directly to our genetics project," Berthold says. Links and information on donating to the project can be found at www.mauiforestbirds.org.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at email@example.com. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.