From “A Wing and a Prayer:” How Hawai’i hopes to save its forest birds with a most ambitious, unusual conservation project

Lisa “Cali” Crampton, director of the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project. Cover bird above is an Hawaiian I’iwi, an iconic honeycreeper in a photo taken by Jack Jeffrey.

Cali Crampton first came to Hawai’i a dozen years ago, drawn by the chance to work with the spectacular collection of forest birds spread throughout the islands’ rainforests. With beaks that curve into half circles and plumage that reflect every stripe of the rainbow, her winged charges are among the most exotic birds on earth.

Today, though, she’s part of a life and death battle. Almost every day, while pushing to get the rescue off the ground, she and her peers lose more of these native birds in a land that’s both an unparalleled tourist paradise and the world’s capital of extinction.

Young ‘Akikiki. These forest birds are under the most pressure from avian malaria of almost all the Hawaiian species. Photo by Bow Tyler.

“I’m more worried than I’ve ever been,’’ said Crampton, director of the Kaua’i Forest Bird Recovery Project. The fates of these species are so tenuous she recently took her teenage son into the forest in hopes of seeing the most troubled species, such as the ‘Akikiki and ‘Akeke’e, while they still exist.

Hawaii has struggled with extinction for generations as a result of invasive rats, cows, cats, pigs, mongoose and plants that have come with the people who’ve flooded these islands from all over the world. But the latest threat is driven largely by climate change. A strain of avian malaria is creeping up the mountains as inland temperatures rise, which means the disease is now reaching the last of the forest birds isolated in the highest elevations.

Crampton is part of a consortium that plans to release clouds of laboratory-bred mosquitoes infused with a naturally occurring bacteria that will act as a sort of birth control they hope will halt the disease transmitted by wild mosquitoes. It’s a scientific acrobatic maneuver, the most ambitious and unusual conservation venture in the U.S. It’s so complicated it’s taken ten years to prepare the launch on Maui this fall and then Kaua’i next year.

‘Akeke’e, another of the forest birds facing extinction. Photo by Bow Tyler.

“We have a limited amount of time,’’ said Chris Farmer, who runs the Hawaii conservation work for the nonprofit America Bird Conservancy. “We’re in the stage where every option is on the table.”

Our new book on bird conservation, “A Wing and a Prayer: The Race to Save our Vanishing Birds,’’ takes a deep look at the work underway across Hawaii. The islands are the front lines of the world’s extinction landscape, with more than two thirds of the native birds already gone. We’re sharing stories from the book to introduce its themes to Flying Lessons readers – and in the case of Hawaii, explore a future the rest of the U.S. will want to avoid.

Avian malaria has gradually spread throughout these islands over several decades, killing the forest birds on the lower elevations long ago. For a time, the birds in the upper rainforests were safe from the disease, since mosquitoes need the warmer temperatures of the coastal lowlands to breed. As climate changes raised temperatures, however, the disease-carrying mosquito gradually moved up the mountains until none of the forest birds are free from its reach.

Here are some of the remaining Hawaiian forest bird that are found only in Hawaii.

Justin Hite, who leads the field work for the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, told us how his team has gradually watched as almost all of the last of the Akikiki disappear from the forest where he once found flocks of the birds a few years ago. “Sometimes I feel like a hospice nurse,’’ he said.

Chris Farmer, director of Hawaiian programs for the American Bird Conservancy.

The mosquito project may be the last chance of preserving the bulk of the remaining 17 species of honeycreepers that have long been the pride of Hawaii. But the release of lab-bred insects is a venture that requires the approval of scores of local, state and federal agencies that watch over the island’s environment. But the consortium is now testing the concept on small scales to prepare for the widespread release.

“We’re racing as hard as we can,” said Farmer. But he worries it’s possible to lose the last of such species as the Akikiki before the affects of the mosquito rescue project can take affect. “It looks very grim for the Akikiki.”

More than the future of birds are stake in Hawaii. Cali Crampton tells the story of another of the endangered honeycreepers, the Puaiohi. The small, nondescript bird lives on the fruit and berries in the forest, and spreads the seeds as it travels throughout the rainforest. This one of the primary ways that seeds are dispersed on the islands, a vital role that helps keep the woodlands healthy and growing.

“We have no forest without the Puaiohi,” she said. “Without forests, we have no flood control. We have no drinking water.” To put in another way, without this bird, the rich, lush Hawaiian rainforest won’t survive.

A Puaohi thrush. Courtesy of the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project.

2 responses to “From “A Wing and a Prayer:” How Hawai’i hopes to save its forest birds with a most ambitious, unusual conservation project”

  1. This is heart breaking to me. I hope and I hope something helps save these precious beings.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to write. Let us hope that these projects in Hawaii are able to make a difference. Very much worth keeping up with and following.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: