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Millerbird numbers triple on Laysan Island

Millerbird
An endangered Millerbird finds a perch on Laysan Island, located 930 miles northwest of Honolulu. Photo by Robby Kohley

Known from just two remote Hawaiian Islands, the endangered Millerbird is descended from a Pacific Island reed-warbler ancestor that arrived around 2.3 million years ago. Unfortunately, the songbird’s far-flung strongholds proved vulnerable. Starting in the 1890s, human activities and introduced rabbits destroyed all vegetated habitats on Laysan Island. Later, invasive plants further transformed the island. The combined impacts resulted in the extinction of Laysan’s Millerbird subspecies and two other bird species, leaving Nihoa Island as the Millerbird’s last stand.

After many years of habitat restoration on Laysan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, invasive plants have been largely controlled there, paving the way for the Millerbird’s reintroduction. Working with federal, state, and non-governmental colleagues, American Bird Conservancy biologists Chris Farmer and George Wallace helped plan, fund, and implement relocation of Millerbirds from Nihoa to Laysan.

ABC became involved in the project in 2009, building on years of work by many others. Conducting a successful translocation required in-depth research on the species’ biology on Nihoa and investigations of Laysan ecosystems, followed by lots of prep work and planning. This work culminated in the translocation of the birds and post-release monitoring. In 2009 and 2010, the project team captured Millerbirds in mist nets on Nihoa and tested holding cages and captive diets. In 2011 and 2012, it translocated a total of 50 birds to Laysan, nearly 650 miles by boat from Nihoa.

Researchers transfer a box containing Millerbirds from a boat to Laysan Island in 2011. Photo by Ryan Hagerty/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The two translocations could not have gone better. The birds were released on Laysan into a massive thicket of naupaka, a thick-leafed, ground-hugging plant. They loved it — so much that it made it hard to find them later.

Conserving Hawai‘i’s biodiversity is difficult due to the numerous threats facing all native species there. However, for the Millerbird, decades of hard work by dozens of people in many agencies and organizations led to an inspirational victory. This little bird has proven to be robust, and its population has increased over threefold in the last 10 years.

The project is a critical component of ABC’s efforts to save Hawai‘i’s imperiled native birds and to shine a bright light on the region’s conservation issues and the urgent need to address them. 

Why Hawai‘i is the epicenter of the avian extinction crisis

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American Bird Conservancy

American Bird Conservancy

American Bird Conservancy is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. It contributes the “Eye on Conservation” column in each issue of BirdWatching.

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