Critically endangered bird transported from Kauaʻi to Maui’s Bird Conservation Center
A critically endangered ‘akikiki was transported from a deep valley in the Alaka‘i Plateau on Kauaʻi to the Maui Bird Conservation Center on Friday morning, Sept. 2, 2022.
The finding comes after 10 days of efforts by a team who is trying to save the species from extinction. The field team set up mist nets and used sound attraction to draw the bird out of the area where malaria-carrying mosquitos have moved in, resulting in a perilous decline of the native honeycreeper.
The species is found in the wild only on Kauaʻi.
Named Carrot, for its orange leg band, the ‘akikiki is the father of a chick, Erica, brought into human care last December. The field team of five was hoping to find Carrot and another bird, that is its offspring. They’re believed to be the last remaining ‘akikiki in an area called Halehaha. While the team spotted Carrots offspring named Abby (though it’s believed to be a male), they were unable to catch it.
Dr. Lisa “Cali” Crampton who leads the Kauaʻi Forest Bird Recovery Project was asked if bringing one bird out of its wild habitat to protect it from deadly avian malaria was a success. “Absolutely!” she said. “Even when these birds were more abundant they were hard to catch, especially at this time of year when they are not breeding so not actively defending territories and responding to playback. So kudos to the team for getting one of the two males we targeted.”
The field team comprised of KFBRP staff Justin Hite and Tyler Winter, along with Sonia Vallochia from the Maui Forest Bird Project Recovery Project, Cara Thow from the DLNR/PCSU Hawai‘i Island avian disease program, and bird care expert Peter Luscomb captured Carrot in the very last hours of their week and a half long search and rescue mission.
Right after dawn, pilot Chris Currier of Airborne Aviation landed at the field camp to pick up the bird, housed overnight and for the helicopter trip to Maui, in a specially designed box. Currier said it was an honor to be part of the effort to try and save ʻakikiki from extinction in the wild.
At Maui’s Kahului Airport Jennifer Pribble and Brenden Scott with MBCC, operated by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, walked out to meet Currier the courier, and drive Carrot to their Olinda facility. He becomes the 37th ‘akikiki in safety there, where they’ll remain, while a large collection of agencies and organizations grapple with plans to introduce incompatible male mosquitoes into critical forest bird habitats to suppress mosquito populations and try and set-back the extinction clock.
At MBBC, Carrot was given fluids, food, and antiviral medication. He got a thorough check-up before going into quarantine for the next 30 days.
How have Carrot, Erica, and Abby survived when all the other Halehaha ‘akikiki have disappeared? Crampton said, “It might partly be luck of the draw, like why some people have still evaded COVID despite how widespread it has become. It might be that their territory, which encompasses a couple of ridges, gets a little more wind and thus has fewer mosquitoes? Or it may be that they have had avian malaria but were lucky enough to get a mild dose and survived.”
Officials with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources say Carrot’s rescue is great news but tempered by the knowledge that there’s a good chance the species will be extinct in the wild within a year, before other birds can be rescued.
“We are very excited and humbled to have the opportunity to save the last few ‘akikiki from near certain death in the wild and prevent the complete extinction of the species. This decision was not easy to take; when possible we prefer to leave species in the wild. But the disappearance of the Halehaha population, which used to be the most numerous one, does not bode well for the remaining birds, and so at this point, the best course of action is to protect them in captivity until mosquitoes and avian malaria are controlled on the landscape over the next few years. After the threat of disease is mitigated, we plan to release ʻakikiki back into the wild. So, this is a temporary situation,” Crampton explained.
Next spring a partnership of the KFBRP, SDZWA, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Pacific Bird Conservation, and other partners hope to mount a mass ʻakikiki search and rescue mission to bring the last wild birds and their eggs to safety.
“This is an exciting moment, because we achieved our goal, but also a very somber moment,” said Crampton. “I lay awake last night thinking about Abby, the remaining ʻakikiki at Halehaha, wondering what would happen to it, whether we would see it again, whether we’ll have another opportunity to try to catch it., trying to imagine Halehaha without ʻakikiki.”