Teya Penniman’s career in bird conservation and research began with an internship tracking the habits and haunts of White-crowned Sparrows, Wrentits, and Spotted Towhees in California’s coastal scrub. It was supposed to be a short hiatus from college for Penniman, but that three-month stint morphed into nine years as a staff biologist with Point Blue Conservation Science, much of it on remote islands.
Now, a new chapter is starting both for Penniman and bird conservation on islands in Hawaiʻi, where a project to combat a small enemy in a big way is beginning.
“I never grew tired of sitting in a blind, watching the antics of Brandt’s Cormorants stealing nest material from an absent neighbor, and I never lost the awe of extracting a vagrant from a mist net,” Penniman says. “But I wanted to do more to protect birds and their island homes.”
So, she finished her undergraduate degree in ornithology and then pursued degrees in law and management, emphasizing environmental law, economics of natural resources, and alternative dispute resolution. After serving as an assistant attorney general in Oregon, Penniman moved with her family to Maui, where she led an invasive species project targeting a suite of harmful nonnative plants, animals, and insects. In 2019, her work came full circle when she accepted a position with American Bird Conservancy as the coordinator for a multi-agency partnership called “Birds, not Mosquitoes.”
“The Hawaiʻi project is especially urgent, with 12 or more species of endemic songbirds on the brink of extinction,” says Penniman. Recent surveys peg the Kiwikiu (Maui Parrotbill) population at fewer than 200 birds. Less than 2,000 individuals remain in the populations of another four Hawaiʻi-endemic honeycreeper species and one thrush. Hawaiʻi’s native forest birds face a double threat: The birds evolved in the absence of subsequently introduced mosquitoes and the diseases they transmit when extracting a blood meal. (For example, a single bite from an avian malaria-infected mosquito can kill an ʻIʻiwi.) Compounding this threat, climate change is accelerating the movement of mosquitoes upslope into the imperiled birds’ last remaining highland refugia.
The “Birds, not Mosquitoes” partnership is racing to launch a project that uses ubiquitous bacteria known as Wolbachia as a form of “birth control” for mosquitoes. This effort does not involve genetic modification. The goal: to reduce mosquito populations to the point where forest bird populations rebound. The nature and scale of the project will require strong agency commitment and community engagement, according to Penniman, who embraces the challenge. “I’m honored to be working with ABC on this critical initiative and couldn’t ask for a better team of agency colleagues. The enthusiasm and smarts are there to make this happen.”