State of the Birds: Requiem for Hawaii

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Published on March 26th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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I cannot conclude my blogs on the U.S. State of the Birds Report without mentioning Hawaii and its birds. The native bird species of Hawaii are by far in the worst shape of any group of birds in the United States.

Here’s why the severe decline in Hawaii’s birds should be an issue of national concern:

  • One-third of all federally listed bird species in the United States occur in Hawaii.
  • More than 65 percent of Hawaiian birds are federally endangered or threatened or are otherwise of conservation concern.

And all of these depressing numbers do not include the 71 species known to have gone extinct since human colonization of the islands about 1,700 years ago. This is without a doubt the single most important bird conservation issue in our country today, yet does not receive nearly the attention it deserves.

While habitat loss is a key threat to Hawaiian birds, the biggest problem on Hawaii (as well as other islands in the world) is introduced, invasive species.

The invaders come in several forms:

  • Introduced plants that change and degrade the native habitat;
  • Non-native animals that either kill birds directly or modify their habitat;
  • And (most insidiously) introduced diseases spread by introduced insects that are fatal to most native birds.

The cumulative impacts of these invasives, particularly introduced avian malaria, mean that most native Hawaiian birds are restricted to higher elevation forests where disease carrying mosquitoes do not occur.  However, even these last refuges are now under potential threat from climate change, which may allow mosquitoes to invade every higher elevations.

Efforts at invasive species exclusion, reforestation and removal of non-native plants in some areas of Hawaii suggests that there are some reasons for optimism for such species as the ‘Akiapola’au, which has shown positive responses to such efforts. Translocation of the Laysan Duck to Midway Atoll appears to have resulted in the creation of a second population to provide extra insurance against catastrophes.  The eradication of rats from Midway Atoll has led to a veritable population explosion of Bonin and Bulwer’s Petrel and Tristram’s Storm-Petrel.  These are all extremely encouraging developments and indicate what could happen if we applied sufficient time and resources to this urgent problem.

Yet, it is undeniably true and a national tragedy that irreplaceable components of our biological heritage have already been lost — many extremely recently.  Such fascinating products of the Hawaiian laboratory of evolution as the ‘O’u, Nukupu’u, O’ahu ‘Alauahio, Maui ‘Akepa and Po’ouli are all thought to have gone extinct in the last two decades of the 20th century. They live now only as museum skins, photos, illustrations, sound recordings, and in the memory of those who studied them.

We must act now to ensure that a similar fate does not await other species that still have a tenuous foothold, such as the Palila, Maui Parrotbill, and ‘Akohekohe.

(Image: Palila. Credit: IslandKine through a Creative Commons license.)

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Comments: State of the Birds: Requiem for Hawaii

  •  Comment from Big Island

    I do not understand the common and fervently defended practice here on the Big Island (and probably on the other Islands) of establishing feeding stations for the feral cat population.
    You can not ‘feed’ the instinct to kill out of a cat. And, in my opinion, even more bizarre is the practice of trapping the feral cats, neutering them and then RETURNING them to the wild.

    These cat colonies, despite being fed and neutered by well meaning people prey on the bird and gecko population.

    I understand and sympathize that it is not the cats fault but if a home can not be found then either no-kill indoor shelters should be established or the cats should be euthanised.

    Since the people who own cats can not be responsible pet owners -or so it seems- then all incoming cats to the island should be neutered unless a special breeding license is obtained. When a person leaves the Island they should be required to show proof of the disposition of their cat.

    FWIW.

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