AMERICAN BIRD CONSERVANCY
Hawaiian Bird Goes Extinct: Government Must Act Now to Prevent Dozens
A native Hawaiian bird died in captivity on November 28, probably
signaling the extinction of the species. Saving the Po'ouli, a small
honeycreeper found only on the island of Maui, had been the mission of a
few dedicated biologists at the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project over
the past year. Sadly, their stalwart efforts seem to have come to a sad
juncture, and a lack of funding and commitment from the federal and
state governments could result in the extinction of many more Hawaiian
By the time the decision was made to begin captive-breeding efforts,
only three birds were thought to survive on Maui. Bad weather caused
delays to capture efforts, but cancellation of an expedition during one
of the few available weather windows due to temporary cessation of
funding seemed symbolic of the situation at such a critical time.
Ultimately only one bird could be located, and though successfully
caught, it has now died in a Maui breeding facility. A slim but waning
hope remains that the other two known birds may yet survive; however,
neither has been seen in months.
The questions being asked in the conservation community are how could
the situation have been allowed to get so desperate before
captive-breeding attempts were made? Why has funding been so hard to
obtain recently for a species so perilously close to extinction? And
how do we ensure that the Po'ouli's plight is not repeated by other
endangered species, particularly those in Hawaii?
The Po'ouli's tragic story follows a series of bird extinctions that has
swept Hawaii since humans arrived on the islands. Most of the surviving
native land birds are heading towards extinction. As with the Po'ouli, a
combination of introduced predators, disease, and habitat clearance have
caused their declines. At the same time that these species are slipping
away, seemingly unnoticed, well-funded programs to protect the Bald
Eagle, California Condor, and Whooping Crane - species that faced a
similar, if not greater barrage of threats - are succeeding, showing
that species conservation programs can and do work if properly resourced.
"Hawaii's bird extinction crisis is a global tragedy that is largely
being ignored. That the World's wealthiest nation is allowing bird
extinctions to continue, largely unchecked, in its own back yard is
unconscionable," said Dr. George H. Fenwick, President of American Bird
Conservancy. "Fully one third of the birds on the U.S. Endangered
Species List occur only in Hawaii, several of which may already be
extinct. Funding for the conservation of those that remain needs to be
increased by orders of magnitude if we are to avert a biological
disaster in our lifetimes."
Thirty-two bird species that breed primarily on islands in the Hawaiian
chain are listed on the global "Red List" of threatened species, several
of which have not been seen in decades and may already be extinct.
Others survive but in desperately low numbers. Another, the Hawaiian
Crow survives only in captivity. In fact, only a handful of
Hawaiian birds appear not to be in decline. The surviving
species could likely still be saved from extinction if the required
effort is made.
At a time when the Endangered Species Act is coming under criticism, the
probable extinction of the Po'ouli should serve as a wake up call to the
government and the American people. American Bird Conservancy is calling
for a commitment from the Bush Administration, Congress, and the
environmental community to dramatically increase their efforts to
prevent bird species extinctions, particularly in Hawaii.
The Po'ouli was first discovered in 1973 and placed on the Endangered
Species List the following year. In the mid 1980s, the total population
was thought to number around 100 birds, though no more than a handful
have ever been seen. At one point, three birds were shot by researchers
to learn more about the species' diet by examining their stomach
contents. In 2002, one of the three known remaining birds was caught and
released within the territory of another, in an attempt to get the two
to breed. However, the translocated bird did not remain in the area.
Captive breeding efforts began in 2003, when members of the Maui Forest
Bird Recovery Project attempted to locate and capture all remaining
birds. Only one has been located in the year since, and this was the
bird that was captured on September 9, 2004. Decline and likely
extinction of the Po'ouli has been attributed to loss of forest habitat,
introduced species such as feral pigs, and, quite probably, disease such
as avian malaria.
The Hawaiian Islands are unique in terms of their biological diversity.
Many species of plants and animals there occur nowhere else on Earth,
having evolved in isolation, thousands of miles from the next nearest
land. Hawaii's birds exhibit one of the world's best examples of
adaptive radiation, in which many forms are derived from a common
ancestor. Variation observed by Darwin in finches on the Galapagos
Islands gave rise to his theory of evolution. Had Darwin studied
Hawaiian birds, he would have discovered an even more marked diversity
among Hawaii's honeycreepers than exists among those Galapagos finches.
The decline of Hawaii's birds is symptomatic of the gradual destruction
of Hawaii's ecosystems. This destruction began with the arrival of
Polynesian settlers who cleared much of the lowland forest in the
archipelago. This was compounded by a suite of introduced species
ranging from predatory mongooses, to diseases such as avian pox and
malaria. In combination these factors have caused the extinction of more
than 20 Hawaiian bird species since 1500. Despite this, a few Hawaiian
landbirds still have stable populations. Among them are the Apapane and
Hawaii Amakihi. Captive breeding programs involving the Zoological
Society of San Diego, The Peregrine Fund, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, and Hawaii Department of Forestry and Wildlife have been
successful in the case of other rare Hawaiian species, including the
Maui Parrotbill, Small Kauai Thrush, Pallila, and Hawaii Creeper. The
Nature Conservancy has also played a key role in Hawaiian bird
conservation through habitat acquisition and management.
American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is a U.S.-based 501(c)3 not-for-profit
organization dedicated to conserving wild birds and their habitats
throughout the Americas. ABC is headquartered in Virginia, with offices
in ten states and the District of Columbia. ABC has more than 300
partner organizations throughout the Americas, primarily through its
leadership roles in the North American Bird Conservation Initiative,
Partners in Flight, the Bird Conservation Alliance, the National
Pesticide Reform Coalition, and the Alliance for Zero Extinction. ABC
was recently rated one of the best-managed small charities in the U.S.
by the independent group "Charity Navigator," and given their highest
rating for fiscal management. For more information, see:
Photographs of the Po'ouli are available from the following Web sites
(please consult them for copyright information):
Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project - www.mauiforestbird.org
Hawaii Dept. of Forestry and Wildlife - www.dofaw.net