Saving the Kiwikiu, a native Hawaiian songbird

Kiwikiu
Kiwikiu, or Maui Parrotbill, will be translocated in October. Photo by Zach Pezzillo (MFBRP)

Conservation groups on the island of Maui are working to prevent the extinction of yet another Hawaiian honeycreeper.

This month, they will begin translocating up to 8 captive-bred and 12 wild Kiwikiu, previously known as Maui Parrotbills, to a restored forest on the southwestern slope of Haleakalā Volcano. The goal is to create a second insurance population for the species, which currently numbers fewer than 312 birds in the wild.

Kiwikiu is only found in the high-altitude native forests on East Maui. As its one remaining wild population has declined, the species’ range has shrunk to less than 7,400 acres.

Hawaii was once home to more than 50 native honeycreeper species, but over the centuries, at least 35 have become extinct, and another six are probably extinct. About 15 species are currently listed as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable. Kiwikiu is considered critically endangered.

A Kiwikiu grabs a waxworm. Photo courtesy American Bird Conservancy

The wild population exists primarily at two sites on the northern slopes of the volcano. One site is owned by The Nature Conservancy, while the other is the state-owned Hanawi Natural Area Reserve. The wild birds set for transfer will come from Hanawi.

“The Kiwikiu is hanging on in a very small and vulnerable population,” says Hanna Mounce, project coordinator at the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project. “We are committed to doing everything we can to save this species, and the partnership has used the best science we have to move forward with these recovery efforts.”

American Bird Conservancy, San Diego Zoo Global, and the state’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife are also involved in the recovery project.

Native forest restored

“We are excited and proud of all that the partners have accomplished, including planting over 250,000 native plants and restoring the native forest within Nakula Natural Area Reserve in preparation for this October’s translocation of Kiwikiu to this site,” says Chris Farmer, Hawai‘i Program Director for American Bird Conservancy. “Kiwikiu died out from this site historically, and reintroducing them back here will greatly increase the species’ chances of survival for future generations.”

“Kiwikiu were once found on these slopes in the drier forests, even down to 500’ elevation in the past,” adds Fern Duvall, the Hawai‘i Department of Lands and Natural Resources’ Maui Natural Area Reserve Manager. “It is hoped that these new releases will once again allow these birds to prosper in their ancestral home range.”

The project partners will release birds captured in Hanawi as well as those raised at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Using individuals from these different sources will increase the likelihood of success and boost the birds’ chances of doing well at the release site. “Conservation breeding is a critical step in saving Hawai‘i’s most endangered birds,” said Jennifer Pribble, Senior Research Coordinator for the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program, San Diego Zoo Global. “But it is a last resort and a stop-gap measure. The goal is always to return the birds back into the wild where they belong.”

Aviaries and helicopters

The team will move the birds from the Maui Bird Conservation Center into temporary release aviaries at the Nakula release site in mid-October. There they will be intensively monitored to ensure that they are adjusting to the environmental conditions. Soon after, the field team will begin capturing wild birds in Hanawi and transporting them by helicopter to the Nakula release site.

Inside the temporary aviaries, the wild Kiwikiu will be paired up with the birds from the Maui Bird Conservation Center and observed daily. After the birds have adjusted to the release site, the pairs will slowly be released into the restored native forest, where supplementary food will be provided to help the birds survive and transition.

The team will outfit each bird with a small radio transmitter, and the movements of the entire cohort will be intensively tracked. These observations will be used to determine if the birds are surviving and if they start to breed — measures of the overall success of the project — and whether any changes will be necessary in future translocations.   

Thanks to American Bird Conservancy for providing this news.

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