The Hawaiian honeycreepers, a family of colorful songbirds native and unique to the archipelago are almost extinct.

The birds’ ancestors — a small group of finches — arrived on the Hawaiian islands between 7.2 million and 5.8 million years ago, and with the very varied environments in the volcanic geography, more than fifty species of the endemic Hawaiian honeycreepers developed.

Male honeycreeper feeding on berries. Image Credit:

Unfortunately, out of those fifty species, only eighteen remain — and six of these, inhabiting the island of Kauai, could go extinct within the next ten years, as stated by a report published on Wednesday in the Science Advances journal.

The road to extinction

The very things that created the honeycreepers, such as the diverse and unique environments, could instead doom them to extinction, as the birds cannot live anywhere else, or flee from the changing environment. And adapting to the changes takes a long time — more than they can afford to spend.

Among the things threatening the local birds are climate change, rats, and mosquitoes. The arrival of mosquitoes in the nineteenth century meant trouble, but at the time, the Alaka’i Plateau was the perfect refuge against the disease-carrying insects: too high and cold for them to live there, and perfect for the birds.

However, the rising temperatures have made the plateau progressively more mosquito-friendly, allowing them to breed and spread there. Mosquitoes aren’t just a problem for humans, they can transmit diseases to animals too, such as avian malaria and avian pox, which are deadly. And to make things worse, since the birds are endemic and small in numbers, is unlikely for them to evolve resistance to the diseases, as they do not have enough genetic mix.

Another problem is the arrival of rats in the archipelago, brought by colonizers. Not only they are a problem for humans, but the rats actively prey on the birds, eating their eggs and worst of all, the female honeycreepers. Not only do they kill unborn, new birds, but the death of future mothers eliminates by extension all the honeycreepers babies they could potentially produce. And with this being a relatively new threat, the birds, not used to being hunted by rodents, simply do not know to fly away when a rat comes looking for food.

The Po‘o-uli is an extremely rare honeycreeper and the only remaining species of its genus. Image Credit:

Conservation efforts

According to Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, “it’s very hard to see a way that things are going to end well, and it’s going to happen in a relatively short amount of time.”

The six species in high risk will certainly go extinct within the next ten years if nothing is done to sufficiently slow down their rate of death, which has remained more or less stable, but troubling, for the last decade. One species of Hawaiian honeycreepers has only 468 birds remaining, with another having less than one thousand.

Lisa “Cali” Crampton, the project leader of the Kaua’i Forest Bird Recovery Project and one of the authors of the study, notes the very troubling revelations made during the research. The birds they knew were in trouble are worse than previously believed, and at least two of the species they thought were fine are actually in danger.

Nonetheless, Crampton along with her colleagues are working hard in order to help save the birds, collecting eggs from two most endangered the species in order to keep them safe in captivity.  Away from prying rats and diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, with the goal to create a captive breeding population, to help repopulate the Hawaiian forest.

Other efforts include setting rat traps close to honeycreeper nests, and federal, State and nonprofit agencies are also doing what they can, which includes helping control rodent populations, and keeping invasive species such as pigs and goats away from the birds’ habitats. Although these well-intentioned efforts do not help against the looming threats of climate change and all the consequences it carries for the birds.

The most endangered honeycreeper species are the akikiki and the akekee. As stated by Crampton, a petition is ongoing to list another species, the iiwi, as endangered. She noted that all the previously recorded efforts require public support, and that individual efforts to reduce carbon footprints can help in the long run, “everything we can do to slow down the rate of climate change is going to help the birds” have stated Crampton.

Culturally and environmentally significant

The Hawaiian honeycreepers should be saved, not only just because they’re beautiful birds, but because they’re an important part of what is an already fragile ecosystem, and their disappearance would mean severe damage to the archipelago’s environment. The birds spread seeds, pollinate plants, and keep local forest insect populations under control.

There are also cultural reasons: Native Hawaiians view animals and plants as ancestors, and feathers used to decorate the ancient Hawaiian chief’s regalia. Crampton notes that the loss of these native birds would also mean losing an important link to Hawaiian past and that it’s not too late to save the birds.

Sources: The Verge