Paradise to many-but an ongoing extinction crisis to many birds
Paradise to many-but an ongoing extinction crisis for many birds
To many, it’s paradise. The island of Hawai’i is a wonderland of natural beauty that I have had t
he pleasure to explore and appreciate. However, if you look a little closer, you’ll discover that no place on Earth is home to more bird species under threat of extinction. Since humans have arrived, 95 of 142 bird species have become extinct on Hawai’i. Thirty-three of Hawaii’s remaining 44 endemic birds are listed under the Endangered Species Act; of which ten have not been seen for decades and presumed as extinct.
Native Hawaiian’s historical relationships to the native forest birds is most notoriously demonstrated in the intricate art of Hawaiian feather work . Long ago, Ali’i ( Hawaiian royalty) coveted brightly colored feathers as symbol
s of wealth and power. Ahu’ula (cloaks), mahiole (helmets), kahili (long poles reserved for royalty), and leis were adorned with the feathers of birds such as the red i’iwi. A full ahu’ula could require feathers from as many as 80,000 birds! Damage to the native species began in the 7th century, when Polynesian voyagers started arriving on the islands accompanied by their do
gs, chickens and pigs. Invasive species, such as the mongoose and rat, also triggered the death and destruction of Hawaii’s endemics. In 1826, a second spate of destruction began when a European whaling ship, the Wellington, brought mosquito larvae to Maui. The pests brought mosquito-transmitted diseases, avian malaria, and avian pox. Many of Hawaii’s native species suffered drastic population declines once introduced mosquitos began transmitting avian malaria between birds. Additionally, large areas of native vegetation that these birds depend on were lost during this period due to livestock grazing and demand for more sugarcane plantations. The destruction continued into the 20th century and soon, factors such as the influx of tourists to the archipelago, growth of human habitation on the islands, climate change, and constant introduction of invasive species have all led to the wanton destruction of Hawaiian ecosystems.
Among the list of Hawai’i’s endemic bird species that are endangered include Hawaiian gooses (nenes), Palilas, Hawaiian honeycreepers, ‘Ios, and ‘Akikiki. In addition, many of the native plants that these birds feed on, such as the mamane, have been declining due to the introduction of game animals in Hawaii. These animals eat seedlings and prevent the growth of the forests that these birds call home. Since human colonization, approximately half of Hawaii’s native forests, with trees such as koa, ‘ohia, and sandalwood, have been lost. These forests support some of the most concentrated population of Hawaii’s native birds.
So why save them? Most importantly, these forest birds are integral to Hawaii’s ecosystems, serving as pollinators, seed dispersers, and insect predators. They also serve a great cultural significance to Hawaii’s history, told about in stories and revered. As well, Hawaii’s native birds are some of the most unique and beautiful in the world, and it our generation’s kuleana (responsibility) to protect the native species and support their success for years to come.
What can be done? Hawaii is already taking steps to reduce the range of other invasive species in the habitats of these native birds, and organizations such as the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration project are working to restore the habitat of birds such as palila. Focused efforts have been made to fence off habitats to exclude feral ungulates. In turn, this improves habitat quality and reduces mosquito counts. As well, the captive breeding and releasing of birds such as the Hawaiian crow is ensuring the continued existence and recovery of native species. The securing and managing of entire ecosystems is imperative to keep the processes such as succession, nutrient cycling, and evolution as natural as possible.
In my pleasant community of Morro Bay, California, I was surprised to find out that birds in my town are facing a similar situation as birds in Hawaii. The Western Snowy Plover, a small shorebird, is now endangered in California as a result of habitat loss and introduced species. When domestic dogs, foxes, crows and ravens were introduced, population numbers started decreasing. Furthermore,the California Condor, considered a keystone species in the ecosystem, is critically endangered due to habitat loss, ingestion of trash, lead poisoning, pesticide contamination, and hunting. They are uniquely adapted to carrying out the role as nature’s cleanup crew, feeding on carrion, thus being a vital scavenger. They remove diseased flesh from the environment, and eat some of the largest carrion compared to other vultures.
When I return home, I hope to work with organizations such as the Morro Bay Audubon Society, and educate the public about conservation. Right in my backyard, I can help reduce human impacts by fending off Snowy Plover breeding grounds and sensitive nesting habitat. I plan to teach schoolchildren about the importance of sharing the beach with these fragile, beautiful creatures. I am also interested in applying for an internship at the Hi Mountain Lookout in Los Padres National Forest. I hope to help rehabilitate the condor species as well as increase their chance of survival. I plan to help the research center conduct long-term research in the stability and diversity of local plant and vertebrae populations, and restore the ecosystem. My main goal is to see the interpretive and educational program expanded and strengthened. If I could help change one person’s mindset, I could help change the entire future of the California ecosystem. By working with these organizations, I will educate the public on the importance of native birds and inform them of our personal stewardship in helping to save them; because once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.