The recent rescue mission in Hawai‘i in search of a handful of ‘Akikiki, a critically endangered honeycreeper species, located a single 6-month-old chick, captured it, and transported it to a conservation center on Maui.
The team of six bird researchers had hoped to locate the four or five remaining ‘Akikiki in a thick rainforest on Kaua‘i but could only find the young bird pictured above. The birds, including a family of four, are considered to be the last living members of their species at the Halehaha research field camp within the Alaka‘i Wilderness Preserve. One other group lives in the wild a few miles away and is believed to number fewer than 50 individuals.
Like many other Hawaiian species, ‘Akikiki has been decimated by avian malaria, a disease that non-native mosquitoes have been spreading among birds in the 50th State for many years.
Birds at the highest forest elevations have previously been safe from mosquitoes because they can’t survive cooler temperatures. But as temperatures rise due to climate change, the mosquitos have moved higher, too — and the tiny birds now have no way to escape them.
Heavy rain, strong winds
The team of biologists from the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project (KFBRP), San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA), and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) camped in the forest for 10 days, attempting to rescue the chick and its family. The team battled heavy rain and strong winds all week in their attempts to rescue the birds in mist nets strung across a high ridge, where the family had last been spotted. On Saturday, December 4, they caught the chick in one of those nets, carried the bird down to camp, and fed and cared for it.
The next day, a helicopter was dispatched from Maui to Kaua‘i to pick up the bird. After a two-hour flight, it arrived at the Kahului Airport around 1:30 p.m. On the landing pad, SDZWA veterinarian Deena Brenner peered into the bird’s transport box to give it a quick check, and quietly exclaimed that it appeared to be healthy and well.
A short golf cart ride and a 15-mile car ride later, the now well-traveled chick arrived in upcountry Olinda, at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, to eventually join 42 additional ‘Akikiki. Most of these birds were hatched from wild-collected eggs and, ideally, they will be joined by the remaining three members of the chick’s family that may be rescued in the future.
While the chick is nicknamed Erica, its sex won’t be known until it matures in another six weeks.
Cali Crampton, who leads the KFBRP team, explained that this translocation project — approved at both federal and state levels — is a last-ditch effort to try and keep this particular population of ‘Akikiki from going extinct.
“Landscape-scale control of the mosquitoes that carry the disease killing these birds is still several years away,” Crampton said. “We estimate the ‘Akikiki population only has two years left before malaria kills them all.”
A collaborative effort is underway to eventually release sterile mosquitoes into the forest to reduce total mosquito numbers, but it could be too little, too late to save the ‘Akikiki and other native forest birds on Kaua‘i. This is the motivation for trying to move the Halehaha population into safety, until the birds can be safely returned to their native habitat in the future. In addition to the family of four, it is believed there might be one more ‘Akikiki still alive at Halehaha.
At the Maui Bird Conservation Center, Brenner gave the new arrival a thorough medical examination. “The bird looks to be in really terrific condition,” Brenner said. “It has excellent pectoral musculature. It has very good body weight, and is a fit, healthy bird.
“We did notice that the bird’s eyes were slightly dull, and its skin was dry, indicating mild dehydration, even though the bird had been eating throughout the day,” Brenner added. “We gave the bird subcutaneous fluids to improve hydration and help the bird feel a bit better. It was a big day for this little bird.”
For 30 days, the ‘Akikiki chick will be isolated in a quarantine facility and will be getting anti-malarial medication in its food. “We think it’s possible this bird has been exposed to malaria out in the forest,” Brenner said. “In times of stress and change, birds may be more susceptible to getting sick, so it’s important to start her on treatment.”
Thanks to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance for providing this news.
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