About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Climate change continues to threaten native birds, but a potential fix is in the offing.

One of the first wildfires in Olinda on Maui ignited directly across the street from the offices of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project — and about 150 feet away from an enclosure run by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance that houses the critically endangered alala (Hawaiian crow) and akikiki, a honeycreeper endemic to Kauai.

Luckily, the winds blew the fire southwest, in the opposite direction of the enclosure, and none of the birds — or project staff — were affected.

But it did raise concerns — and not new ones — about the impact of climate change on native bird populations and their habitats.

“The fire in Olinda was unprecedented,” says Hanna Mounce, research and management project coordinator for MFBRP. “We think about hurricanes; we weren’t even thinking about fire. It’s climate change. There have been so many more severe … unpredictable events, and it doesn’t take many more to lose more species.”

Hawaii owns the unfortunate distinction of being the bird extinction capital of the world, according to the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy. Since human contact, 95 of the 142 bird species found nowhere else have become extinct in Hawaii. Of the more than 50 species of honeycreepers endemic to the islands, only 17 remain, with 12 of those at risk of imminent extinction.

The state has identified several key threats, including habitat destruction and degradation by humans and introduced ungulates, habitat-altering invasive plants and non-native predators like feral cats, rats and mongoose. But the biggest threat, according to biologists, are non-native mosquitoes, which transmit diseases like avian pox and avian malaria, both of which have had devastating effects on Hawaii’s forest bird populations. 

And climate change isn’t helping.

The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project planted new trees around their offices to replace those destroyed in the Olinda fire. (Provided: The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project)

Mosquitoes can’t thrive in cooler climates, so honeycreepers have been able to survive in native forests at high elevations, like in Olinda on Maui. But increasing temperatures associated with climate change are allowing mosquito populations to expand into higher elevation forests where some of the last populations of these native birds remain.

In addition, climate change has had an impact on wildfires in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Changes in temperature, precipitation and drought — all products of a warming planet — can affect the severity and timing of the wildfire season. (Scientists say, though, that climate change cannot be solely blamed for the wildfires that killed at least 115 people on Maui last month, though it likely amplified the conditions.)

“It’s wet and cool up here, and it’s getting hotter and drier,” says Mounce, noting that MFBRP’s office is located nearly 4,000 feet above sea level on the slopes of Haleakala, “and we’re seeing mosquitoes.”

Avian malaria carried by mosquitoes is an aggressive existential threat to native forest birds. And it has been the most challenging to combat.

“We can control other things. We can kill mongoose, plant more [native] forests, and that may have an effect on the bird population,” Mounce says. “But it won’t change the trajectory until we control disease.”

Brought by European and American ships to Hawaii in 1826, non-native mosquitoes infected the native birds with avian malaria, decimating the population. Over the next 150 years, four more mosquito species were introduced.

It helps to build captive care facilities, like the one in Olinda, which replicate the birds’ natural habitat. But the real solution is dealing with the mosquitoes, which will only venture into areas where native birds live as global temperatures increase.

The other solution is coming as early as November. That’s when millions of male mosquitoes inoculated with a naturally occurring bacteria will be released in East Maui, which hosts two birds at the highest risk of extinction. (Kauai will be next.) Part of the multi-agency “Birds, Not Mosquitos” project, the male mosquitoes containing the bacteria will be unable to reproduce with wild females. They also don’t bite birds or people, so they don’t transmit diseases.

Mounce hopes this works — because she knows firsthand that solely translocating birds isn’t a viable solution.

In October 2019, MFBRP moved seven critically endangered kiwikiu, an endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper endemic to Maui, to the Nakula Natural Area Reserve. She says the project spanned more than 20 years, from establishing the protected area to replanting the native forest. All seven birds died from avian malaria transmitted by mosquitoes.

Conservationists say they will not attempt to reintroduce the Hawaiian crow, or alala, into the wild on the Big Island again until more is known about the Hawaiian hawk, or io and the bounds of its territory. (Courtesy: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.)

“It was a giant failure,” she says. “That was a really hopeless period in time because we didn’t know what else to do. If we can’t translocate [the birds] and the mosquitoes are moving into new habitats, what could we do? It was a very hard time.”

That’s why this new plan is exciting for conservation biologists.

“Moving forward, at least there is a tool on the horizon that we hope will be successful,” Mounce says. 

The native birds housed in Olinda may have escaped the wildfires, but extinction is still imminent.

You may think, “Who cares about the birds?”

We all should.

“It’s hard to put a value on biodiversity if you don’t value that,” Mounce says. “But these birds are a part of the fabric of Hawaii. They are a piece of Hawaii.”

In the U.S. nearly 300 of 750 native birds — or 37% — are declining in population. Birds play an important role in our ecosystem, dispersing seeds and eating pests. They have been associated with far-reaching conservation efforts, including reforestation and regulations on hunting and use of toxic pesticides. And, more importantly, it’s our kuleana.

“If no one advocates for the birds and gives them voice, kiwikiu is but one species of native Hawaiian honeycreeper that will vanish in the next few years,” Hillary Foster, a data and GIS senior technician with MFBRP, said in a press release. “Everything that is happening to our native forest birds is human caused. The birds did not ask for avian malaria and they didn’t ask for invasive ungulates that strip forests down to bare ground. I feel it’s important to help them and to right the wrongs we’ve done to them.”

The Olinda fire destroyed trees around MFBRP’s office. So the staff decided to plant native trees and shrubs — iliahi, ohia, naio, mamaki, ukiuki — in their place.

“If you don’t preserve the forest and all the pieces of these ecosystems,” Mounce says, “humans won’t survive here, either.”


Read this next:

At Least 66 People Are Still Missing In The Maui Fires


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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Thank you, Catherine, for reminding us about the birds. Hopefully, the inoculated skeeters will work but there is a legal challenge, so we're not there yet. I don't want to imagine a world without our special birds.

katshimata · 5 months ago

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