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Final birds from captive-breeding program released

Event marks the successful end to the recovery of the puaiohi birds into their native habitat

The three endangered puaiohi are carried to a chopper for transport to the Alakai Plateau below Mount Waialeale on Monday. These are the last three birds to be released back into the wild as part of a breeding project. Photo courtesy of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources

The Maui News

The final trio of endangered puaiohi birds bred in captivity — including on Maui — has been released to the wild on Kauai, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said Tuesday.

The three birds, which included one from the Maui Bird Conservation Center in Olinda and two from the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on Hawaii island, were flown to Kauai on Monday and released into their native habitat, signaling the end of the puaiohi captive-breeding program.

“This is very exciting for me,” said Jennifer Holler of the San Diego Zoo Global bird conservation program. “I started working with this species more than 10 years ago, and we all hope this final step in the recovery process means the puaiohi will continue to thrive in the wild.”

While the zoo’s captive-breeding program officially ended a year ago with the release of 15 birds, three were kept at one of the conservation centers for another year because they were underweight and not quite ready for release.

The endangered puaiohi were bred in captivity at the Maui Bird Conservation Center in Olinda and at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on Hawaii island. A bird from Olinda and two from the Big Island were flown by commercial jet and private chopper for release in the forest of Kauai on Monday. Photo courtesy of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources

On Monday, an employee of the San Diego Zoo Global’s Maui Bird Conservation Center carried the puaiohi onto the plane and “got a lot of attention from passengers,” the department said. The birds were transferred from jet to helicopter to be flown to their final home.

Once at the release site on the Alakai Plateau, the birds were banded so they could be identified and tracked in the future. Holler said both birds are females and will hopefully be good breeders and nest builders in the wild.

The puaiohi is one of a half-dozen rare, endangered forest birds found only in the montane forests of Kauai. When the program started nearly 20 years ago, it was estimated that there were fewer than 300 of the thrush left on Kauai, said Lisa “Cali” Crampton, project leader of the Kauai Forest Bird Recover Project.

The San Diego Zoo Global, DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered to boost the population.

For two decades, staff from conservation centers on Maui and Hawaii island have boarded a Hawaiian Airlines plane bound for Kauai, carrying either a small wooden box or large, six-compartment crate bearing the birds. Staff members took the captive-raised puaiohi to be released in the remote, rugged Alakai Plateau below Mount Waialeale. In total, 240 puaiohi have been transported to Kauai.

“There is now a stable population of about 500 puaiohi on Kauai, according to a scientific paper we published earlier this month,” Crampton said. “Their habitat is protected by predator-proof fencing; invasive plants and animals have been controlled, and now we hope we’ll see their population numbers increase over time in the wild.”

Crampton explained that while it would be wonderful to see 1,000 or 2,000 puaiohi in the mountains, there was evidence that captive-raised puaiohi in recent releases were not doing as well as experts had hoped. Many of the birds died within several months, likely eaten by predatory rats.

So researchers decided that “with the puaiohi population remaining stable, it was best to spend limited funds on rodent control and focus on two other species that are in dire straits due to dramatic population declines,” Crampton said.

Both the ‘akikiki and ‘akeke’e have populations of around 500 and 1,000 birds, respectively, and the ‘akeke’e has seen a 98 percent population decline over the past 12 to 15 years. Bird recovery teams are putting the majority of their efforts now into collecting eggs of these endemic birds from nests high in ohia trees, hatching them and then raising chicks at the bird conservation centers for eventual release back into the wild.