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Maui’s dwindling kiwikiu to move to Mainland

Short-term captive program hopes to keep birds from extinction

With fewer than 150 kiwikiu left in the wild, state officials and local conservationists are planning to transport 30 of the birds to Mainland zoos in hopes of saving them from extinction. — DLNR photo

Thirty of Maui’s beloved parrotbill, the native kiwikiu, may be taking the biggest trip of their lives.

State officials on Thursday announced plans to save the critically endangered birds from extinction by removing 15 males and 15 females from the wild and transporting them to Mainland zoos with experience in endangered forest bird husbandry.

“It’s not meant to be a long-term captive program,” said Lainie Berry, a Honolulu-based forest bird biologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife. “It’s meant to be short term to keep the birds alive and safe until we can secure a site where they can be released safely.”

Due to overwhelming risk of avian malaria, there are currently no safe sites on Maui, she said Thursday during a state Board of Land and Natural Resources meeting. In the future, Hawaii island may be the birds’ best shot to return home.

Considered the most threatened among Maui’s honeycreeper family, kiwikiu are found nowhere else in the world. A DOFAW report said fewer than 150 individuals are likely left in the wild and they potentially have three to five years remaining before extinction.

Years of effort went into preparing the Nakula Natural Area Reserve on the leeward side of Haleakala for the introduction of endangered kiwikiu. Unfortunately, after a small group of released birds contracted avian malaria, local conservationists say there are no longer safe sites on Maui and that the birds may need to be taken to Mainland zoos in hopes of saving them from extinction. — MAUI FOREST BIRD RECOVERY PROJECT photo

The petite brown-and-yellow birds have a distinct song and pack some serious strength when they use their stout beak — the only beak of its kind in Hawaii — to chisel away at bark searching for grubs.

Kiwikiu once lived throughout native forest habitat in leeward Haleakala before the lush areas started disappearing from grazing and browsing by wild animals. Once the native forests diminished, the birds started decreasing too. Their biggest threats have been habitat loss, predators, climate change and avian disease, especially avian malaria. The birds were listed as endangered in 1967.

Berry said Thursday that the population is difficult to monitor due to their remote habitat. Population estimates from 1980 to 2001 show that kiwikiu were stable. Then there was a “precipitous decline.”

As of 2017, the population estimate was 157 individuals, she added. The birds are restricted to a narrow swath on the windward slopes of Haleakala.

If no action is taken, the birds will reach predicted functional extinction by 2027, the report said.

The move will have an inevitable impact on the wild population, however, bringing forward the functional extinction timeline by three years.

“But at the same time it would give us something we don’t have, which is a safe population in captivity that can be protected from avian malaria,” Berry said. “We do recognize it will have an impact on wild population but we feel it will be worth the risk to have this safe population in captivity to avert eventual extinction.”

Officials do not yet have a timeline for moving the birds to the Mainland. January 2022 may be the earliest that captures may commence, the report said.

So far, three Mainland zoos have committed to receiving kiwikiu for the short-term captive program: National Aviary in Pennsylvania, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia and the Tracy Aviary in Utah, according to Berry.

The Maui Forest Bird Working Group met last year and established five actions to help save the birds, which would be implemented concurrently, according to the report, including:

• Bringing birds into captivity with the intent to maintain and/or produce release-quality birds and release the birds as soon as suitable release sites can be identified and managed.

• Ensuring landscape-scale mosquito control remains high priority.

• Developing strategies and evaluating feasibility of short and long-term predator control tools to protect the wild population.

• Continuing to enhance habitat management and restoration in the current and historic kiwikiu range to ensure habitat is available into the changing future.

• Assessing potential high elevation translocation sites on Hawaii island for habitat suitability and potential impacts to or from other species.

The decision to move the birds to the Mainland comes on the heels of a highly anticipated translocation project that was more than a decade in the works by a host of federal, state, county and nonprofit groups. In October 2019, kiwikiu were transported — seven from the wild and seven from captivity — to a reforested area high atop leeward Haleakala.

“Very unfortunately the result was not what we expected,” Berry said. “The translocated birds did well feeding and moving around but very quickly succumbed to avian malaria.”

The rapid increase in mosquito numbers at the release site within a short time frame raised additional concerns about similar expansions elsewhere on Maui.

Although the item was scheduled for discussion only, board members Thursday affirmed the need for quick action.

“It seems given the urgency the only real alternative to what you’re proposing is to let the species become extinct,” said member Christopher Yuen.

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

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