Often referred to as the “Capital of Extinction of the World,” Hawaii has sustained far more bird damage than the other 49 states combined.
Using the fossil record, scientists have identified at least 71 species and subspecies of forest birds – along with several species of duck, geese, railroad, and flightless ibis – that disappeared after the arrival of the Polynesians 800 to 1,400 years ago. Some were likely hunted outright, scientists believe, while others were caused by habitat degradation or the rats, pigs, and dogs that the Polynesians brought with them.
When the Europeans arrived in 1778, a second wave of destruction began, resulting in 24 more bird deaths (plus the brief fall of the Hawaiian monarchy). In addition to accelerating habitat loss, Europeans and Americans introduced new and deadly predators, from cats and mongoose to the black rat, which, unlike the Polynesian rat, easily climbs trees to raid nests.
The newcomers also accidentally released mosquitoes on the island chain, a true tropical paradise that they didn’t have before. Outbreaks of birdpox and, from the 1930s, bird malaria subsequently decimated Hawaii’s famous honey herbs, which had no defenses against such diseases.
Today, only 21 native songbird species remain on the main Hawaiian islands, 11 of which are federally classified. Most are high in the mountains where bird malaria has not yet been reached, which means that in the populated lowlands, locals can spend their entire lives without ever seeing a native passerine bird.
To make matters worse, scientists now fear another wave of extinction as climate change allows malaria-carrying mosquitoes to keep moving uphill. The island of Kauai, which stretches for 5,000 feet just above the bird malaria line, has been particularly hard hit. Surveys show that bird populations have plummeted in the past 10 years.
“If we can’t solve the disease problem, it’s hard to see how we wouldn’t lose most of the remaining forest birds, or even faster, in the next few decades,” says Eben Paxton, avian ecologist at US Geological Survey, which focuses on the endangered forest birds from Hawaii and other Pacific Islands.
Over time, Paxton and colleagues studied the genetics of honey creepers, as well as the avian, parasite, and vector relationship to identify factors linked to increased immunity to avian malaria. In the meantime, other scientists are working on various methods of experimental mosquito control, including infecting men with a bacterium that would act as a mosquito contraceptive.
Habitat restoration, habitat protection, and the containment of alien mammals will continue to play a role, explains Paxton.
“It’s really hard to work so hard to save these birds and have these great powers that are so difficult to control,” he says. Still, he adds that parts of Hawaii still have “vibrant, functioning bird communities” and that “the fight is still worth fighting while those places are around”.
How to help: Donate to the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project or the Kaua’i Forest Bird Recovery Project, two nonprofit organizations that work for the native species of their respective islands.
The 10 rarest species of birds on major Hawaiian islands
Species Estimated population
Hawaiian Crow 10 (all captive bred birds)
Oahu Elepaio 1.261
Hawaiian Coot 2,000
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