There are many animals that the world is in danger of losing for good. Critically endangered species with declining populations are in serious risk of going extinct, and it’s up to human researchers and conservationists to help save them.
And the researchers trying to save the kiwikiu got great news this week: a male bird thought to be dead was found alive, renewing hopes of saving the species.
The kiwikiu, also known as the Maui parrotbill, is a species of bird native to Hawaii. They are listed as critically endangered, with their population in the wild possibly fewer than 150 birds.
The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project is one conservationist group dedicated to saving the species, but it has been an uphill battle. In October 2019, seven wild kiwikiu were released into the wild in an effort to reintroduce them to newly-restored native forests.
But the plan did not work out: according to a press release, an “encroachment of avain malaria” was spread by a record-number of mosquitos, and five of the seven birds were found dead.
The other two were presumed to have fallen as well, dealing a serious blow to their conservation efforts. However, they recently got a new “glimmer of hope.”
On July 21, more than 600 days after the mission, Zach Pezzillo of the MFBRP heard a familiar but unexpected call in the wild:
“I first heard what I thought might be a distant kiwikiu song. It then sang about ten times across a gulch in some koa trees. It dropped down into some kolea trees where it spent the next twenty minutes calling and actively foraging through the berries, bark, and leaves. I walked down into the gulch to get a closer look.”
He was able to track down the bird, and the kiwikiu’s leg band revealed that it was a male bird from the translocation mission, long thought to be dead.
Not only was it a relief that a member of this critically endangered species was still alive, but the surviving kiwikiu also presented them with a unique research opportunity. While the male kiwikiu was exposed to malaria, as the other birds were, he survived — and the answer to why could be the key to their next step forward.
“This bird has been exposed to disease, as the others were, and has somehow persevered,” MFBRP Coordinator Dr. Hanna Mounce said in the press release. “This is an amazing sign of hope for the species as we still may have time to save them This is a hopeful sign that a population of kiwikiu and other native forest birds could survive in restored landscapes in the future, especially without mosquitoes and disease.”
“Our restored forests are working,” said Scott Fretz, DOFAW Maui District Manager. “For this one kiwikiu to survive, alone for over 600 days, shows those ecosystems can function again. This is exciting news as we press forward to protect and replant the missing pieces and re- weave the green mauna lei so that one day the birds will move on their own.”
The group is now working on a revised plan to translocate the birds after the unsuccessful 2019 attempt, and this surviving bird has helped breathe new life into what seemed like a lost cause.
“We thought we had lost all the translocated birds to malaria,” Dr. Mounce said. “But this one’s survival has given us hope and encouragement, that maybe, just maybe, we can save this incredible species before it’s too late.”
What great news! We hope this bird’s unlikely survival is a major step towards saving this critically endangered bird species.