Millerbird numbers triple on Laysan Island

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Millerbird

Endangered by extinction, known from just two remote Hawaiian islands, the Millerbird descends from an ancestor of the Pacific Island reed warbler who arrived about 2.3 million years ago. Unfortunately, the songbird’s distant strongholds proved vulnerable. From the 1890s onwards, human activity and introduced rabbits destroyed all overgrown habitats on Laysan Island. Invasive plants later transformed the island further. The combined effects resulted in the extinction of Laysan’s Millerbird subspecies and two other bird species, making Nihoa Island the last remaining Millerbird population.

After many years of habitat restoration on Laysan by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, invasive plants were largely controlled there, paving the way for the reintroduction of the Millerbird. Working with federal, state, and non-governmental colleagues, American Bird Conservation Agency biologists Chris Farmer and George Wallace helped plan, finance, and implement Millerbirds’ move from Nihoa to Laysan.

ABC was involved in the project in 2009 and built on years of work by many others. Performing a successful translocation required in-depth studies of the species biology on Nihoa and studies of the Laysan ecosystems, followed by much preparatory work and planning. This work culminated in bird relocation and post-release surveillance. In 2009 and 2010, the project team caught Millerbirds in fog nets on Nihoa and tested test cages and diets in captivity. In 2011 and 2012 a total of 50 birds were relocated to Laysan, nearly 650 miles by boat from Nihoa.

The researchers brought a box of Millerbirds from a boat to Laysan Island in 2011. Photo by Ryan Hagerty / US Fish and Wildlife Service

The two translocations could not have gone better. The birds were released on Laysan into a massive thicket of Naupaka, a thick-leaved plant close to the ground. They loved it – so much that it was difficult to find them later.

Conserving Hawaii’s biodiversity is difficult because of the numerous threats to which all native species are exposed. For the Millerbird, however, decades of hard work by dozens of people in many agencies and organizations resulted in an inspiring victory. This little bird has proven to be hardy and its population has tripled in the past 10 years.

The project is a critical part of ABC’s efforts to save Hawaii’s endangered native birds and shed a light on the area’s conservation issues and the urgent need to address them.

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