Hawai’i is the most isolated archipelago in the world, and whole groups of species evolved here that are found nowhere else. But the islands began changing as soon as humans arrived.
People initially brought rats and pigs to the Hawaiian Islands. Later arrivals brought a wider assortment of species that have since overpopulated the islands, including goats, sheep, pigs, deer, and cattle, all of which contributed to destruction of native habitats.
Introduced ants and other arthropods disrupted the native food webs. Cats and rats consumed adult birds, their eggs, and young. Numerous invasive plants altered the watersheds and replaced the native plant communities.
Mosquitoes infected the birds with diseases to which most Hawaiian songbirds, or passerines, had no resistance, such as malaria and pox; as a result, most native Hawaiian songbirds are now limited to higher elevations.
As temperatures warm, the high-mountain forests in Hawai’i that are home to the ‘I’iwi are likely to experience an influx of introduced pests, especially by disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Most of Hawai’i’s remaining native birds are found only in hard to access, high-elevation protected areas or remote islands, making habitat restoration and invasive species control extremely costly.
Although Hawai’i is home to fully one-third of all bird species listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the state receives only 4.1 percent of federal and state funds dedicated to recovery efforts for ESA-listed birds.
Further compounding the problem, as a small state, Hawai’i has fewer taxpayers and reduced representation in Congress. It is also unable to share the costs for collaborative conservation projects with adjacent states, unlike the rest of the United States.
Given the vast distance between Hawai’i and the mainland, few have the opportunity to see the results of conservation actions or appreciate the beauty of Hawai’i’s native birds—whether an ‘ohi’a forest full of calling honeycreepers or a remote atoll with millions of seabirds screaming overhead.
Without these experiences, Hawaiian birds tend to be “out of sight, out of mind” for most people.