New Film Now Available Documenting Plight of Endangered Hawaiian Birds

I'iwi by Michael Walther
I'iwi by Michael Walther

(Washington, D.C. , August 22, 2012) American Bird Conservancy's (ABC) new 30-minute film titled Endangered Hawai'i, narrated by actor Richard Chamberlain, is now available for purchase on DVD. The film explores the on-going bird extinction crisis in Hawaiʻi that has led to about 70 percent of all endemic bird species in the state becoming extinct. ABC produced the film with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

With beautiful footage of many of Hawaiʻi's stunning birds and their habitats, the film showcases the unique biodiversity of our 50th state and explains the environmental crisis that has caused Hawaiʻi to become known as the “Bird Extinction Capital of the World.” It describes the nature of the crisis, its causes, and current efforts to implement solutions for species remaining on the brink.

“It is shocking to many people to learn that there is no place else on Earth that has witnessed the levels of bird extinctions that we have seen in our 50th state, a place that normally conjures up images of lush vegetation, sun, beaches and a refreshing tropical climate. It is our aim with this film to make not only Hawaiʻi's past and present problems known to a wider audience, but to also demonstrate that with the full commitment of the state and federal governments and non-governmental organizations, we have the ability to turn the situation around and prevent further bird extinctions,” said Dr. George Wallace, Vice President for Oceans and Islands for ABC and the lead collaborator on the film.

Since the arrival of Europeans to the Hawaiian Islands, 71 endemic bird species have become extinct out of a total of 113 that existed just prior to human colonization. Of the remaining 42, 32 are federally listed, and ten of those have not even been seen for up to 40 years.

A key species of concern is the Kiwikiu, or Maui Parrotbill, a honeycreeper that was once widespread on Maui and Molokaʻi, but which is now limited to approximately 500 individuals high on the windward slopes of Haleakala volcano. Another honeycreeper, the Palila, was once found throughout the Hawaiian Islands, but now clings to less than five percent of its original range on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. Meanwhile, the Nihoa Millerbird, endemic to the small, rocky island of Nihoa, is down to as few as 700 individuals, and the ʻAkikiki and ʻAkekeʻe of Kauaʻi are in steep decline.

The film points out that the primary threats to Hawaiian birds are exotic species: predators such as feral cats and rats; herbivores such as goats and pigs that degrade native habitat; diseases such as avian malaria and pox transmitted by non-native mosquitoes; and plants that displace native species and reduce habitat quality for native birds. Climate change may further reduce or eliminate mosquito-free – and hence disease-free – upland habitat as temperatures rise.

An encouraging note highlighted in the film is that in areas where there has been aggressive conservation action to reduce these threats, Hawaiian birds have stable or increasing populations, and new projects underway by state, federal, and NGO partners such as the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Hawaiʻi's Department of Lands and Natural Resources, and ABC are also making a difference. For example, a predator-proof fence – the first of its kind in the United States – has been constructed to keep non-native feral cats and dogs, small Indian mongooses, and rats out of seabird nesting habitat at Kaʻena Point on Oʻahu; a 52 mile fence to exclude mouflon sheep and goats from Palila critical habitat on Mauna Kea is under construction; and a new initiative to create a second population of the endangered Millerbird on Laysan Island as insurance against the species' extinction is showing encouraging early signs of success.

The film says that significant federal funding is key to reversing the current negative trends in Hawaiian bird populations. Unfortunately, the resources directed to Hawaiʻi's environmental problems are alarmingly low in proportion to their need. While Hawaiian birds comprise one third of all U.S. bird species listed under the Endangered Species Act, only 4.1% of funding for recovery of listed bird species is directed their way.