Some of Hawaii’s most beautiful birds will soon go extinct without intervention.
Only a few dozen ‘akikiki (Oreomystis bairdi), live in the wild, and another 42 are in captivity. The species is confined to Kauai and one of Hawaii’s most endangered birds.
The ‘akeke‘e (Loxops caeruleirostris) population is larger but also endangered, with just 600 left in the wild. This species is disappearing even faster than the ‘akikiki.
The kiwikiu (Pseudonestor xanthophrys), has also recently been classified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered, and the same classification may not be far behind for the ʻākohekohe (Palmeria dolei), according to a study by the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.
The future of these species is looking grim, even by official FWS reports, and unless Hawaii’s mosquito population is brought under control, they may not have a future at all.
Invasive southern house mosquitoes were first brought to the Hawaiian islands in the early 1800s, while avian malaria, which is not transmissible to humans, began its spread throughout the islands in the 1930s, Native Voices reports.
Modern studies show that as climate change warms even the higher plateaus of Kauai, mosquitoes have expanded their territory, spreading avian malaria to other species.
That’s resulted in huge species losses, especially for the ‘akikiki and the ‘akeke‘e, which are particularly vulnerable to the malaria parasite, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
There may be hope.
A study published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin outlines a few conservation strategies to save these two species, and perhaps others affected by avian malaria.
One strategy is a form of mosquito control involving working with natural bacteria in mosquitoes called Wolbachia. The Wolbachia bacteria normally don’t cause issues for mosquitoes, but when two mosquitoes carrying two different strains of Wolbachia mate, the eggs are infertile.
Researchers posit that, knowing which form of Wolbachia is carried by females in the area, they can release males with another form of the bacteria. Those males would eventually mate with enough females to sterilize most of the colony, and thwart the spread of avian malaria at its source.
Congress has set aside $6.5 million for this operation through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
The problem is, the project may not receive funding until 2024, the Revelator reports, potentially too late for the less than 30 ‘akikiki left alive in the wild.
Researchers with the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project brought a number of wild-harvested ‘akikiki eggs into captivity in 2014-2015, which have since hatched and bred successfully in captivity. Wildlife managers could try to capture all the individuals left in the wild and bring them into captivity, hoping for the same.
Moving the birds around is a third option.
Wildlife managers have attempted to translocate kiwikiu from Maui, where they’re endemic, to suitable habitats on Hawaii Island, but this may not have positive outcomes for all of Hawaii’s native forest birds.
According to the USGS, as many as 11 more native Hawaiian forest birds are vulnerable to extinction as a result of avian malaria spreading into high elevation forests. What measures are found to be successful now, may also provide the blueprint for successful management of more of Hawaii’s unique forest bird communities.
Help us save the beautiful birds of Hawaii.
This article by Matthew Russell was first published by The Animal Rescue Site
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