Keep the Kiwikiu in Hawaiʻi
Keep the Kiwikiu in Hawaiʻi
Itʻs Now or Never: Help Save the Kiwikiu
Please help support the efforts to bring awareness and provide assistance to the plight of Hawaiʻi's most imperiled bird, the kiwikiu. Kiwikiu is an incredible honeycreeper that is endemic to the island of Maui. At one point their populations flourished and they could be seen all throughout the island (and even on Molokaʻi). However, in the early 1800s when new diseases and mosquitoes were introduced, kiwikiu were forced into their strongholds deep in the rainforests of Haleakalā. The kiwikiu is currently at the greatest risk of extinction out of all 33 Hawaiian bird species currently listed as endangered, and is likely the most threatened bird in the world. Their population is estimated at JUST 157 individuals and they have been predicted to go extinct as soon as 2026. Hawaiʻi is the endangered species and extinction capital of the WORLD and has lost over 77 species of birds. The most recent species to have fallen victim to extinction was in 2004. This bird, the Po’ouli, was also a Maui native, and its last known specimen died in captivity.
Recently, The Maui Forest Bird working group has proposed to place a significant portion (~ 20% of their entire population) of remaining kiwikiu into captivity and relocate them to the continental U.S.
As a Kanaka (Native Hawaiian) who grew up in the mainland, finding my cultural identity was a tremendous challenge. Taking the kiwikiu from their home and shipping them off to the mainland will essentially be placing them in this same dilemma. Just as Kānaka disconnected from our ʻāina-- an integral part of our identity and culture as a people,-- will struggle to find themselves, captive Hawai‘i birds have been known to lose their natural behaviors, their culture, and even their songs. As a direct result of this the birds can no longer survive in a Hawaiian forest when returned, because the skills and behaviors that they have honed for millennia are lost to them.
As Kānaka, as a community, and as scientists we must raise our voices to fight this action as it does not uphold the traditional values and principles of respect held by our kūpuna toward our native manu (birds). Nor does placing these specialized honeycreepers in captivity on the U.S. continent, in spite the shortcomings and difficulties observed in the past, represent a strong scientifically supported decision. Captivity in general should be the last course of action taken given its history in the islands and even then, it should be the responsibility of those who have had decades of experience caring for these types of birds rather than a program that has never supported a Hawaiian forest bird. In the same breath however, we must come together to support the conservation of the kiwikiu and be both a voice of reason as well as a part of the solution going forward. Extinction is forever, and only as a united community can we stop it.
Recently, The Maui Forest Bird working group has proposed to take unprecedented actions to place a significant portion of critically endangered kiwikiu (Maui Parrotbill) into captivity and relocate them to the U.S. continent. They will be dispersed among three separate facilities located in Utah, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. This action will remove these critically endangered birds from their homes on the slopes of Haleakalā by a distance of up to 5,000 miles. A 6 to 10 hour flight away from their native environments and food sources, and most importantly remove them from their home. Please join me in opposing this action and let those who make these decisions know that there is another option to save these birds from extinction.
As a Native Hawaiian, birder, and conservationist, I can't even begin to express the deep sadness that I feel in response to this proposal. Sending our native birds to the continent is simply not the answer. Captivity as a method of conservation has not been an answer here in Hawaiʻi. I truly wish that it were, but the historical failures of this method speak for itself.
Placing endemic birds in captivity in an effort to preserve them has a long-standing history in Hawaiʻi. This practice first started with the nēnē in the early 1900s and has continued throughout much of the 20th and 21st centuries. Birds such as the ʻalalā have been saved because of these programs. However, while the species is still in existence, these birds are still limited entirely to captivity. While holding and breeding birds in captivity does serve some use as a last-ditch effort to conserve endangered species, its implementation for the conservation of Hawaiian forest birds has proven futile.
Nearly every captive reared bird that has been reintroduced to the wild has either died, gone missing, or has been recaptured within about two years of their release. Including the 7 kiwikiu in the reintroduction efforts in 2019. All but one bird from 2019 is now deceased, and even he is once again living in captivity. For more information on captive releases please see these links: Palila, Palila 2, ʻAlawī/ʻĀkepa, Kiwikiu, ʻŌmaʻo, Puaiohi At the time many of these projects were deemed a success. Yet as it stands, none of the released birds have survived more than a few years past initial reintroduction, and none of these releases have resulted in bird populations that exist freely in the wild to this day
A recent Informational Briefing highlights several critical problems with this direction:
1. The birds will have to travel extremely far and will be exposed to greater stressors.
2. The birds will not have access to native plants or forage species that are part of their natural diets.
3. Since 1997, when Kiwikiu were first brought into captivity, there has never been a successful parent reared chick.
4. Hand reared Kiwikiu lost substantial wild behaviors and exhibited a detrimental affinity for humans.
Rather than once again investing a substantial amount of our limited resources into a costly and ineffective captive breeding strategy, every effort should be made to hold the line on Maui, and if this is not feasibly possible the fourth action item that has been identified in the informational briefing should be prioritized: Translocation.
If it has been deemed reasonable to move birds into captivity more than 3,000 miles from their home by 2022, then why not look to Hawaiʻi Island less than 30 miles away? Protected high elevation forests on Hawai‘i island hold the only stable or increasing populations of endangered forest birds across all of Hawaiʻi. Extensive restoration and ungulate removal efforts (most notably those at the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge) have begotten much more promising results for our bird populations. Especially for the kiwikiu's closest living cousin, the ʻākiapōlāʻau.
While the very real possibility of interspecies conflict does exist, the kiwikiu have coexisted with nukupuʻu (a very similar species to the ʻākiapōlāʻau), Maui ʻākepa, and continues to survive with the Maui ʻalauahio. These three species are extremely similar to the Hawaiʻi island species and this indicates that the possibility for conflict to arise between these bird species is extremely low. Furthermore, RCL Perkins (an early Naturalist in Hawaiʻi) documented the occurrence of mixed foraging flocks that included both kiwikiu and nukupuʻu on Maui. This shows a historical compatibility between the species. On Hawaiʻi Island, even species which seemingly compete for resources such as the ʻākiapōlāʻau and the ʻalawī continue to forage in proximity with little to no violent interactions. In fact, a female ʻākiapōlāʻau was observed caring for a juvenile ʻalawī in the summer of 2020. Predation by ʻIo could possibly present a challenge to the kiwikiu on Hawaiʻi Island, but translocated wild birds in Nakula were also subject to high densities of pueo. And even when the Kiwikiu were sick with malaria they were still able to avoid falling victim to these natural avian predators, in stark contrast to released captive palila in that same year.
Even when given the opportunity to forage in koa (the preferred foraging tree of ʻalawī and ʻākiapōlāʻau) the translocated wild kiwikiu stuck primarily to understory vegetation and ʻōhiʻa. Hakalau and other areas of windward Maunakea have high densities of ʻākala (a preferred foraging plant for the kiwikiu) underneath a predominately koa-ʻōhiʻa overstory allowing for a natural partitioning of resources for these species. The small grubs that live in ʻākala stems and other similar insects that are part of the kiwikiu’s native diet can also be found in abundance in these regions on Hawai‘i island, providing the natural diet that the continental facilities cannot. Additionally, because these key areas are active restoration sites, the habitat is continually improving allowing for even higher densities of birds in the future which will likely provide openings in the landscape for translocated kiwikiu.
Proponents of captivity Have also brought up the unknown distribution and abundance of disease on Hawai'i Island, but recent surveys in the Pua 'Ākala unit of Hakalau that were conducted from Sept - Dec of 2020 from 4200-5000 ft in elevation did not capture a single mosquito. Breeding endangered birds including the ʻākiapōlāʻau have also been observed down to 4200ft in elevation as recently as March 2021, indicating that the mosquito line is still far below the level that it is on Maui.
In my time working in Hawaiʻi I have spent hundreds of hours with ʻākiapōlāʻau and dozens of hours with kiwikiu. While similar, both species exhibit notable differences in foraging pattern and habitat. Given the level of tolerance that Hawaiian species exhibit towards one another and recent extinctions there are also voids left in the avian assemblage that I believe can be filled by neighbor island species.
Thanks to the 2019 translocation efforts it has already been established that kiwikiu are capable of being translocated AND can assimilate well into their new habitat (as long as risk of avian diseases can be ruled out). Both of these pieces of evidence have been hard won on the lives of kiwikiu. Simply disregarding this is only dooming us to keep repeating the same mistakes that have been made in Hawaiian bird conservation over the last 30 years.
Additionally, I worry that while the working group has a great deal of experience and expertise the tragedy of 2019 is clouding their judgment and feeding into a paranoia that disease prevalence is increasing at alarming and unprecedented rates. However, there is no evidence of rapidly increasing mosquito inundation in key forest bird strongholds on Hawai'i island. The incident at Nakula was a surprise but some key factors such as the absence of ʻiʻiwi, even though the area is suitable habitat, should have been a red flag for the 2019 project. In the protected Hawaiʻi Island forests, all threatened and endangered birds are present, this could not be the case if disease was prevalent on these landscapes. So, while specific data on the disease itself is lacking, we can rely on the bird distribution to inform that lack of knowledge.
Based on my recent relevant experience in the field, historical information of bird assemblages, and the most recent information we have on the status of disease; I wholeheartedly believe translocation is the best option for preserving the native Kiwikiu. Especially given that the only alternative to this is captivity in facilities on the continent for an indefinite amount of time. With the low reproductive rate and mellow temperament of the kiwikiu in conjunction with the imminent threat of their extinction, translocation and the exploration of this strategy should be the prioritized course of action.
I truly wish that captivity will be able to prove successful, but these types of programs have failed to adequately meet birds needs for survival and produce release ready individuals. If we were unable to meet their needs in captive settings in Hawaiʻi, in their own native habitats, what are the chances that facilities on the continent will be able to accommodate these birds? Their capabilities to provide the proper diets, handling, climate, and environment for endemic Hawaiian honeycreepers pale in comparison and will almost certainly pose a greater risk than attempting an extralimital translocation. Captivity is the most expensive conservation action and has yielded no promising results thus far. Captivity has quite literally led to the deaths of our native forest birds.
As a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiin) who was separated from the islands for most of my life, being on the continent away from our home brings a deep despondence that too many of us have felt and continue to experience. It won't be any different for our birds. Captive birds have been known to lose their unique behaviors, their learned culture, and even their songs. It breaks my heart to imagine these birds being put through this, and it destroys my confidence in our systems to actually serve to protect our native species when we continue to move forward with tired and tried actions that have never actually fulfilled their intended purpose in the islands. It is time to try something new and embrace techniques that have been met with success elsewhere in the Pacific and even here in Hawaiʻi with the ulūlu translocation from Nihoa to Kauō. Arguably one of the most successful conservation actions undertaken to date in Hawaiʻi.
Major policies within the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, particularly in funding allocation, and actions taken by both state and federal agencies dramatically harm our Hawaiian species and serve as yet another way that the colonization of this place continues to subjugate, oppress, and destroy our culture and ʻāina. I respect and value the people that I disagree with on this topic, but I know in my naʻau that they are wrong and that captivity on the mainland will ultimately cause more harm than good. I am urging the Maui Forest Bird Working Group, The Board of Land and Natural Resources, Chairperson Suzanne Case, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to please take alternative action to captivity and try instead for translocation. The governor of Hawaiʻi has signed executive action in the past to move translocation of nēnē forward in a timely manner. Please support similar steps for the kiwikiu so that this species can be saved from extinction rather than hastened toward it.
Ultimately, I realize that the Land Board will likely proceed with the recommendations put forward by the working group, but let this petition stand as a voice for the Native Hawaiians, the community, and other scientists who fought to keep the kiwikiu in their home.
*Bret Nainoa Mossman is a Native Hawaiian ornithologist who has dedicated his life to the conservation and preservation of Hawaiian birds. He has a degree in Wildlife Ecology and Management from Utah State University and in July of 2021 will have a M.S. in Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. Bret works as a forest bird technician and as the project lead working on Maunakea in order to locate remnant populations of ʻUaʻu. He has been working and attending school for the last five years in Hawaiʻi, operates popular social media pages dedicated to the conservation of Hawaiian birds and their outreach (Birds Hawaiʻi Past Present), and serves on the executive board of multiple long standing conservation organizations in Hawaiʻi. All opinions expressed above are his and his alone and do not reflect the position of organizations that he is associated with.