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Officials hope endangered Maui birds find romance

Wild, captive-bred kiwikiu moved, slated for release

Hanna Mounce, biologist and Maui Forest Bird Recovery project coordinator, conducts a health check on a kiwikiu captured from the wild at Hanawi Natural Area Reserve last week. Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources photos

Scientists remain hopeful that a highly anticipated matchmaking event for a nearly extinct species of Maui-specific songbirds will result in mating and offspring.

Five male and two female wild kiwikiu, Maui parrotbill, were captured and moved last week from the windward slopes of Haleakala to aviaries high atop Haleakala’s leeward slopes.

“The wild birds are doing well,” biologist Hanna Mounce, Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project project coordinator, said Wednesday. “They are eating out of feeders.”

Soon scientists will equip birds with tiny radio transmitters that will track movements for a month or two. Then, the wild birds, along with seven more captive-raised birds already on-site, will be released next week into their new habitat.

“Upon release, the birds will hopefully begin breeding in what is largely a koa forest, brought back to life in recent years after decades of overgrazing by cows, goats, deer and other hooved animals,” state Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesman Dan Dennison said in a news release.

Scientists are hoping that kiwikiu, which are facing extinction, mate and repopulate. Seven wild and seven captive-raised kiwikiu are being prepared for release high atop Haleakala’s leeward slopes next week.

Considered the most threatened among Maui’s honeycreeper family, the kiwikiu are found nowhere else in the world. Biologists estimate that fewer than 300 of the endemic honeycreepers exist; some studies say the population is closer to 157 individuals. Without human intervention, experts determined the birds will become extinct in a matter of years.

Notably cute, the petite brown and yellow birds — the only ones in Hawaii with their bill — have a distinct song. They were previously found in forests around Haleakala and even on Molokai. Once the native forests started diminishing, mostly due to grazing and damage from feral ungulates, they started decreasing, too. Now, kiwikiu are limited to a small area on Haleakala’s windward side.

The capture, relocation, release and possible repopulation project for kiwikiu is the culmination of a long effort that involves multiple local, state and federal agencies. Since 2012, volunteers and several groups worked to prepare the birds’ new habitat, called the Nakula Natural Area Reserve.

Fencing off protected areas, removing feral ungulates and planting more than 250,000 native trees and shrubs with 19 species, such as koa and ohia, were key, Mounce has said. It helped that the kiwikiu preparation is part of a larger reforestation effort with Leeward Haleakala Watershed Restoration Project.

It is believed that the restored ecosystem might be a more productive habitat for kiwikiu, rather than the wetter, colder, ohia-dominated forest at their existing windward Haleakala site, Dennison said.

Last week, a team of partners from the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project, DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, San Diego Zoo Global, Pacific Bird Conservation and American Bird Conservancy captured the wild birds.

The team is planning a mid-November return to the windward site in an attempt to capture more females, DLNR said.

“They are small, but if we can ensure their survival, the new Nakula population represents an enormous step toward eliminating, yet another extinction risk for one of Hawaii’s invaluable and irreplaceable forest birds,” Mounce said. “These bold measures to save them represent their last stand.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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