For the Birds

By Ulalia Woodside

Each August, brilliant blooms of purple ‘opelu burst forth inside The Nature Conservancy’s Waikamoi Preserve on Maui, attracting a colorful, nectar-seeking visitor whose sickle-shaped bill fits perfectly into the curved tubular flowers.

The visitor is the scarlet ‘i‘iwi, a striking native honeycreeper and the American Birding Association’s “Bird of the Year”—a national perch that is bringing attention to the plight of Hawaiian forest birds, especially honeycreepers, in what is also the “Year of the Bird,” as proclaimed by the Audubon Society, National Geographic and others.
Hawai‘i once had more than 50 species of honeycreepers, but today only 18 species remain. Of those, 15 are federally endangered, with the ‘i‘iwi listed as threatened.

A Challenging Environment 

Challenges abound for our honeycreepers. Not only are they susceptible to avian malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases, but mongooses, rats and feral cats prey on the birds and their eggs. Adding to these troubles, there are currently six bills in Congress aimed at rolling back the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Because Hawai‘i is home to over 40% of America’s 1,280 endangered species, we have the most to lose should any of these measures become law.

Why save our Hawaiian honeycreepers? For one thing, they are an evolutionary marvel, surpassing even the fabled finches of the Galapagos Islands in the number and variety of species evolved from a single common ancestor. They are also cultural icons, the ‘i‘iwi being one of the last surviving links to the birds used in traditional Hawaiian feather work.

Additionally, honeycreepers and other forest birds are the pollinators and seed dispersers of the forest. Lose the birds and the fate of many native plants and the forest itself may be in jeopardy.

Threat-Free Habitat

The most important thing we can do for our honeycreepers is to provide them with native forests that are free from the threats posed by introduced and invasive weeds and animals. Removing these threats not only benefits the birds, it increases forest resiliency and the ecological services it provides.

The Conservancy’s 9,000-acre Waikamoi Preserve is case in point. Waikamoi lies at the heart of the east Maui watershed, the island’s primary source of water. It provides refuge for 10 native bird species, five of which are endangered or threatened. To improve habitat, we have built 20 miles of fence, removed all feral pigs, cleared 1,000 acres of habitat-modifying weeds and reduced other predator populations.

These efforts have resulted in stable rare bird populations throughout the preserve. A recent survey by the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project found no avian malaria carrying mosquitoes in Waikamoi. With no pigs, there are no wallows in which mosquitoes can breed.

A 2018 evaluation by the University of Hawai‘i’s Economic Research Organization put the value of the fresh water Waikamoi produces at $36.2 million, and projected that our conservation efforts will save 1.1 billion gallons of fresh water over the next century. By 2072, our conservation work is also projected to prevent 4,300 tons of sediment per year from washing into the ocean.

In short, by protecting habitat for our native forest birds, we are also ensuring a stable water supply and better ocean and human health.

I hope you will remember nature’s benefits and join me is asking our elected officials to continue to support forest conservation and endangered species protection. Your support through political action, volunteering or cash donations is vital.

If we lose our native forests and the native species they shelter, we lose an important part of natural and cultural heritage. We also put our future prosperity and quality of life at risk.

Ulalia Woodside is the executive director of The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i. This op-ed was originally published in the April 17th Honolulu Star-Advertiser.


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