One of the world’s rarest birds, a native Hawaiian honeycreeper called the ‘akikiki, could go extinct in the wild in the coming months.
In July, scientists announced that only five birds remain on Kauai, where they’re native to the island’s cloud forests.
“I assume they will all be gone by the end of this year,” says Justin Hite, a field biologist from the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project who led the survey. “This season has really been a catastrophic one.”
The deadly wildfires that struck Maui earlier this month nearly hastened the birds’ demise when flames beckoned just 150 feet away from an enclosure. The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA) runs two conservation centers for endangered birds—one on the Big Island and the other on Maui, which house 17 and 34 ‘akikikis, respectively.
Thanks to onsite staff, the latter escaped, but close calls like these may become more common. Maui’s fires were in part fueled by a prolonged drought, an environmental condition worsened by climate change.
And while the fires didn't directly threaten the wild ‘akikiki population on Kauai, they served as a “wake up call that changes are happening rapidly. Our level of urgency has to be at level 10,” says Greg Vicino, SDZWA’s vice-president of wildlife care.
Threats to Hawaiian wildlife
As far as songbirds go, the white-gray ‘akikiki is one of its more modest members.
“They’re not the most spectacular,” admits avian ecologist Eben Paxton of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center. “But what they lack in colors, they make up for in terms of personality.”
The birds—tiny energetic things roughly five-inches long and about the weight of two to three grapes—are often described as acrobatic, playful, and curious.
Hawaiian honeycreepers like the ‘akikiki descended from finches that arrived on the archipelago more than five million years ago and diversified, developing novel bill shapes to help them feast on the local flora. But they’re a dwindling group—of the estimated 55 species that evolved, only 17 remain today. Six of these, including the ‘akikiki, are considered critically endangered.
“Working in Hawaii is a bird researcher’s dream,” says Paxton. “But sometimes it’s like being in the trenches on the frontline of the conservation battle.”
Hawaii has the dubious distinction of being the ‘Endangered Species Capital of the World’. It’s home to an outsized proportion, 25 percent, of threatened wildlife in the U.S., despite making just 0.25 percent of its landmass.
“Island species tend to have smaller distributions and hence populations,” says Stuart Butchart, BirdLife International’s chief scientist. “This makes them inherently more vulnerable to random events such as hurricanes or volcanic eruptions.”
But the biggest threat to birds living on remote ocean islands, according to a report published by his organization in 2022, comes from invasive alien species—which affects over 69 percent of such birds, compared to just 18 percent of their continental counterparts.
The gigantic mosquito problem
For the ‘akikiki, it was the arrival of non-native mosquitoes, brought by whalers to Hawaii in 1826, that first sounded their death knell. By then, most of the honeycreepers had lost their resistance to mosquito-borne diseases such as avian malaria, so their populations quickly declined when the insects came, says Chris Farmer, director of the American Bird Conservatory (ABC)’s Hawaii program.
Because mosquitoes and the parasites they harbor thrive only in warm temperatures, the birds fled to the mile-high Alakai Plateau located at the heart of the island and known as the last stronghold of the ‘akikikis. It’s part of an old volcano that flanks one of the wettest spots on Earth. This move temporarily worked—until climate change crept in. Warming temperatures allowed the insects to move up the mountains, invading the birds’ last refuge.
Today, avian malaria is “the existential threat” to the ‘akikiki, says Farmer.
Hite from the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project has spent the better part of the past decade high up in Kauai’s rugged mountains, studying ‘akikikis, as well as collecting birds and eggs for safekeeping in sanctuaries. He first noticed mosquitoes infiltrating the team’s field campsites back in 2020, coinciding with when ‘akikiki numbers began to plummet.
“Mosquitoes are the one gigantic problem that’s driving everything,” says Hite.
Everything else—from alien ungulates that dig up the understory and change the birds’ forest habitat to invasive fungi striking down the native ohia trees they live in—is “so, so, so, far down the list” of threats.
In 2018, Hite’s team observed 27 breeding pairs at Alakai. This fell to 13 in 2020, followed by a precipitous drop to just two pairs a year later.
While conservationists have been predicting the birds’ demise in the wild for awhile, they hadn’t expected it to happen this soon.
“It’s really shocking how fast that change has been for the whole community,” says Paxton. “It’s a very sad milestone for conservation.”
Can the birds be saved?
Preventing the ‘akikiki from vanishing entirely is uncharted territory. “We’re writing the playbook along with our partners as it’s happening,” says Vicinio.
For their part, Vicino’s team strives to provide “a safe haven for the birds while their environment is falling apart.”
This involves fashioning the birds' two Hawaiian enclosures to closely replicate the ‘akikikis’ natural habitat—placing nest-building materials like lichens, twigs, and cobwebs in enclosures; spraying mist to mimic Kauai’s rain patterns; and breeding the birds’ favorite insects onsite. They also try to preserve the birds’ natural behaviors by releasing insects at random times and encouraging foraging, as well as allowing females to pick their own mate.
But it’s a stopgap measure. “I don’t think anybody wants this to be a permanent zoo population,” says Farmer. “We want this to be an ark, something that can hold the birds while we get their habitat suitable to release them back into the wild.”
Which is why he has been leading the charge on ‘Birds, Not Mosquitos’: an insect ‘birth control’ program of sorts. The plan is to render male mosquitoes sterile with the Wolbachia bacteria before releasing them into the wild, thus suppressing the population and reducing avian malaria.
Over the summer, ABC and its partners conducted a small-scale release of mosquitoes in East Maui; they hope to trial the program in Kauai with a few thousand insects in November—unless an ongoing lawsuit impedes progress.
Canary in a coal mine
Still, it will take several years to wipe out mosquitoes from the islands, if at all. “It’s not a silver bullet, we need to have other tools as well,” says Paxton.
“We’re trying to look for genes and gut microbes associated with their increased survival, and from that be able to develop vaccines or probiotics,” explains Paxton.
Their conservation efforts, alongside other measures, were bolstered last May with an injection of $16 million in federal funding via the Hawaiian Forest Bird Conservation Keystone Initiative.
“Even if it’s too late for ‘akikiki in the wild, there are other species it can help—it’s for the whole forest bird community,” says Paxton. “The ‘akikiki may be a canary in the coal mine. Sometimes it takes a crisis for everyone to come together.”