One Small Bird Provides Glimmer of Hope for Saving a Species

Kiwikiu given up for dead discovered in Maui natural area reserve

Media Contact: Jordan Rutter, Director of Public Relations| jerutter@abcbirds.org | @JERutter

A lone Kiwikiu, or Maui Parrotbill, was seen for the first time since being translocated in October 2019 to establish a population in the newly restored forest in Hawai‘i's Nakula Natural Area Reserve. Photo by Zach Pezzillo (MFBRP, 2019).

(Kahului, Maui – July 30, 2021) A remarkable recent discovery is providing a morale boast and hope to the dozens of experts working to save the endangered Kiwikiu (Maui Parrotbill, or Pseudonestor xanthophrys) from extinction. One bird, released into the Nakula Natural Area Reserve (NAR) on the leeward slopes of Haleakalā, was found alive and well, after being thought dead for 605 days.

Zach Pezzillo with the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project (MFBRP) reported this discovery. "I first heard what I thought might be a distant Kiwikiu song. It then sang about ten times across a gulch in some koa trees. It dropped down into some kōlea trees, where it spent the next 20 minutes calling and actively foraging through the berries, bark, and leaves. I walked down into the gulch to get a closer look.”

Pezzillo looked for the bird's unique leg bands and sure enough, it was a male bird designated as “wild #1” (the first male Kiwikiu captured in Hanawī Natural Area Reserve on the windward side of Haleakalā for the 2019 translocation).

During an October 2019 Kiwikiu translocation, seven wild Kiwikiu were released into the NAR. This was part of a larger effort to establish Kiwikiu in newly restored forests and to expand the available habitat for the species to help prevent their extinction. Kiwikiu are the rarest forest bird on Maui, with a population that may number fewer than 150.

The translocation did not go as hoped. The effort was thwarted by the encroachment of avian malaria, which is spread by nonnative mosquitoes. Wet, warm weather brought record numbers of mosquitoes to the release site that fall and most of the birds died from the disease. Climate change is fueling the spread of avian malaria and conservationists are trying to save the Kiwikiu while the landscape is literally shifting under their feet.

Five of the seven wild translocated Kiwikiu were found dead. For more than a year and a half, scientists assumed the remaining two birds were dead — felled by the disease that killed the others. Researchers continued tracking #1 for two months but after losing the signal from his tracking device and after ground searches failed to turn him up, the team decided to leave the release site.

Dr. Hanna Mounce, MFBRP Coordinator, said, “This bird has been exposed to disease, as the others were, and has somehow persevered. This is an amazing sign of hope for the species as we still may have time to save them. Work needs to continue on avian disease and mosquito control, as the rate of survival from malaria is low overall for this species, with only one in seven surviving. This is a hopeful sign that a population of Kiwikiu and other native forest birds could survive in restored landscapes in the future, especially without mosquitoes and disease.”

The DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW), together with Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project, American Bird Conservancy (ABC), National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and a host of other partners, has been working on restoring the native ecosystems of leeward Haleakalā for decades, planting more than 450,000 native koa, ‘ōhi‘a, and other species in the last decade.

“Our restored forests are working,” said Scott Fretz, DOFAW Maui District Manager. “For this one Kiwikiu to survive, alone for over 600 days, shows those ecosystems can function again. This is exciting news as we press forward to protect and replant the missing pieces and reweave the green mauna lei so that one day the birds will move on their own.”

The rapidly warming climate allows mosquitoes to claim new and higher-elevation territories, driving native forest birds closer to extinction. While most nonnative birds have resistance, native species don't, with very few exceptions.

Dr. Chris Farmer, ABC Hawai‘i Program Director, said, “We are racing to develop and implement landscape-scale mosquito control in time to save the Kiwikiu and other Hawaiian forest birds from avian malaria transmitted from nonnative mosquitoes. The rediscovery of this bird provides an incredible burst of optimism and hope after the results from the translocation.”

David Smith, DOFAW Administrator, commented, “In a different world, we wouldn't have to manage the romantic life of one bird, or move birds to save them, but this is what people have created and what we inherited. The survival of this single Kiwikiu doesn't change the overall plans for saving the species. Preventing their extinction is the goal of the entire program. #1 shows us that if we have a good, safe habitat for this, they want to survive.”

The Kiwikiu Working Group, comprised of experts from a dozen organizations and agencies, revisited and revised their plans after the 2019 translocation attempt.

Mounce concluded, “We will carefully analyze what led to the survival of #1, but it's much too soon to say whether this will change our options for trying to save Kiwikiu. We thought we had lost all the translocated birds to malaria, but this one's survival has given us hope and encouragement that maybe, just maybe, we can save this incredible species before it's too late.”

This piece has been modified for the ABC website. It was originally published as a Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources press release.

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