How Scientists Are Racing to Save a Rare Hawaiian Bird From Extinction

It involves a whole lot of native plants—and a whole lot of optimism.

To the small group of young scientists tracking rare birds through the steep, muddy rainforests of Maui, it was a thrilling opportunity: a visit from the eminent ornithologist who literally wrote the book on the group of species they were studying. They begged their boss, Hanna Mounce, to arrange a meeting. The ornithologist agreed to join them at their field site, a remnant stretch of native forest on the misty, windward shoulder of Maui’s towering Haleakala volcano. But all he seemed to talk about was how dark the future looked for Hawaiian birds, how lucky the team was to see them before they inevitably died out.

“He said, ‘I don’t work in Hawaii anymore, because there’s no real hope,’ ” remembers Mounce. “And I was, like, ‘Get away from my field techs!’ ”

Mounce can’t stand that kind of talk, though she hears it all the time because in the conservation world Hawaii is most renowned for extinction. The arrival of Polynesians and then Europeans famously wiped out countless vulnerable island species, many of them before their existence was even recorded. (We found out about flightless terrestrial ibises, bird-catching owls, and an amazing variety of honeycreepers only after their bones were found in lava tubes.) But lost in today’s tourism taglines and colorful brochures is the fact that Hawaii’s extinction crisis never ended.

Right now one in every three endangered bird species in the United States is Hawaiian. In many cases, the birds are considered lost causes, the threats they face—introduced diseases; massive habitat loss; nonnative predators such as rats, cats, and mongooses—simply too daunting to tackle. “We hear that attitude: It’s bleak, it’s hopeless, let’s just skip over it,” laments Chris Farmer, who works with the American Bird Conservancy in Hawaii and dismisses this pessimism. “ ‘Let’s have all those species go extinct,’ I guess, is their message.”

Mounce, too, rejects that attitude. She came here nine years ago as a field tech, after a string of temporary research positions that took her from the Pacific Northwest to Costa Rica, and adopted the island as her long-term home. She became the coordinator of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project and devoted her Ph.D. dissertation to a genetic analysis of the island’s most endangered bird: the Kiwikiu, also known as the Maui Parrotbill, with a population of perhaps 500 individuals and a dire prognosis.

Mounce is fiercely determined that, despite the odds, Maui’s Kiwikiu will live to see the next century. But for that to happen, she and her allies will have to transform the island itself. While continuing to monitor the remaining birds in the dripping-wet rainforest, they are creating new Kiwikiu territory from the ground up on a dry and windy grassland on the other, leeward side of the volcano. Beginning with tiny seedlings, their goal is to rebuild a vast and complex forest that hasn’t existed in living memory, an ark on which the birds can ride out the changes that would otherwise doom them.

The project is enormous, especially in comparison to the payoff: If as many Kiwikiu are alive in 80 years as are living today, that’s success, says Mounce. But the consequences of failure are just as momentous: “Extinction,” she says. Simple and final.

The Kiwikiu’s future home couldn’t look more different from the dense, lush rainforest where the birds live now. Flying above Haleakala’s leeward side in a helicopter, you can see herds of feral pigs, goats, and cows—the descendants of escaped ranch animals—kicking up clouds of dust as they traverse ridgelines and sections of hardpan soil as red and barren as the surface of Mars. Though native trees and bushes hang on in deeply cut ravines and gulches, the area is mostly open grassland, a desiccated dun color even in late May, on the tail end of the wet season. Thick fog passes but seldom becomes rain; when precipitation does fall it quickly runs off the denuded soil. Below, in the densely populated tourist areas along the coast, irrigated golf courses and tropical landscaping stand out from a parched landscape of brown grass and mesquite. Water is a perennial concern.

It wasn’t always this way. Before the arrival of logging, ranching, and ferals, whose relentless grazing now makes it impossible for the forest to regenerate, Maui’s leeward side is believed to have been covered by a great dryland and mesic forest of which only perhaps 10 percent now remains. Koa—the fast-growing tree ancient Hawaiians used to make oceangoing canoes and surfboards—was a keystone of the forest, pulling moisture from fog even when rain was scarce, helping to recharge groundwater, fix nitrogen, stabilize soils, and keep the watershed healthy. Evidence of historic agriculture and thus a moister environment can be found on the slopes. And in the forest, there were birds—many of them, judging from the remains found in caves. Leeward Haleakala was one of Hawaii’s extinction epicenters, says Helen James, a paleornithologist and the curator of birds at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Indeed, this may be the landscape in which the Kiwikiu once thrived; James has found its bones in lava tubes here. Though the birds currently survive only on the wet side of Haleakala, Mounce believes they’re simply out of options, forced to make do with the forest habitat that’s left. The wet forest, she says, poses challenges for birds that aren’t designed for it, and she’s seen hatchlings die when their parents couldn’t get adequate food for them in rainy weather.

When she first came to Maui, Mounce believed that preserving the Kiwikiu would be a fairly simple matter of improving the bird’s existing habitats: two rainforest preserves midway up the cold and rainy windward slopes of Haleakala, both fenced to keep out goats, pigs, and cows. But not only is the available territory in those reserves already full, it’s inexorably shrinking. Any young birds that try to go downslope to establish new territory, it’s believed, enter a zone warm enough for mosquitoes to live, and they soon contract avian malaria—an imported scourge of Hawaiian birds, most of which have no natural resistance, for the last century. “They get bit by mosquitoes,” explains Alex Wang, a former graduate student who has banded and tracked birds with the Recovery Project, “and then they’re just a ticking time bomb.” Sick birds lose red blood cells, weaken, and die.

Right now the general elevation cutoff for mosquitoes in Hawaii is about 4,500 feet. But as the global climate warms, mosquitoes and the diseases they carry will be able to move higher and higher. It’s expected that by the end of this century, malaria will have invaded the Kiwikiu’s last remaining strongholds, in forests that currently sit not far above the current malaria line. Hawaii’s low-lying islands, such as Kauai, are expected to have avian malaria all the way to their highest points, leaving little hope for the long-term survival of many of their endemic species.

But Haleakala rises to more than 10,000 feet, its shoulders a cold refuge even in the tropics. It could be a haven for Maui’s forest birds (including not just the Kiwikiu but five other remaining species) long into the future. There’s just one problem: the absence of forest for them to live in. Saving the Kiwikiu would require building an entirely new population and an entirely new habitat—or, rather, re-creating a destroyed one—to support it.

A male Kiwikiu stretches up on his toes—“trying to look so proud and project so much,” Mounce says affectionately—to sing his distinctive, cheerful song. It’s a nice break after the harsh, continuous screeching of the Alala, or Hawaiian Crow, which is extinct in the wild and one of the other primary occupants of the Maui Bird Conservation Center, a former minimum-security prison where the closed-circuit TVs now show critically endangered Hawaiian birds sitting quietly on their nests.

The six-acre facility holds rooms of incubators, rows of screened-in outdoor enclosures, and a sterile kitchen where nutritionists insert waxworms into holes they’ve drilled in branches. Out back, a family of Nene—the endangered Hawaiian Goose whose population is now rebounding in a rare success story—basks in the sun. The parents were raised here, and though they’ve been released and repeatedly relocated, they returned for three years to lay their eggs.

We’ve come to the breeding center in part because it’s so hard to spot a Kiwikiu in the wild. The day before, hours of slipping and falling through the steep, muddy rainforest where Mounce’s team works, armed with mist nets and the recorded calls of a plaintive young Kiwikiu, yielded just a moment’s glimpse of a breeding pair and their chick, whistling high above us in the misty, mossy canopy of native ō‘ohi‘a trees.

Though there are records of the bird from the turn of the 20th century, it’s so rare to see a Kiwikiu that the species’ existence was basically forgotten for decades. By the time it was rediscovered, its original Hawaiian name, if it had one, had been lost. The Hawaiian Lexicon Committee, a group charged with updating the Hawaiian language, came up with the name Kiwikiu, an onomatopoeic rendering of the sound the bird makes combined with the word kiwi, or sickle-shaped, for its parrot-like beak. (That beak, says James, who has excavated the remains of birds from Hawaiian caves, makes the Kiwikiu extraordinary, since it independently evolved the versatile mandibles and tongue common to parrots.)

The little Kiwikiu hops from branch to food tray and back again, cocking his head from side to side to stare at us with bright eyes. The birds are small and round, with vibrant green and yellow feathers and a frankly adorable personality marked by curiosity and sociability. They usually mate for life and lay only one egg at a time; they sometimes stay with a hatchling for as long as a year. A single Kiwikiu egg “is worth its weight in gold,” says Bryce Masuda of San Diego Zoo Global, who manages the center’s conservation program—though that’s probably an understatement, since the average hatchling weighs considerably less than a penny. Last year the breeding facility’s single successful pair produced four eggs (the staff replaces eggs with dummies midway through incubation, both to protect the egg and in hopes that females will try again), but only one led to a living hatchling. It was raised on an hourly diet of bee larvae, cricket gonads, and scrambled eggs, all soaked in Pedialyte, and eventually fledged. This year the pair produced three eggs, though none hatched.

Progress in the captive-breeding program may be slow, but the Kiwikiu’s very presence here is a sign of important changes. The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project was originally founded in 1997 in an effort to save the Po‘o-uli, an extremely rare honeycreeper and the only remaining species of its genus. But by the time active management began, it was already much too late—only three known individuals remained. The group decided to bring the surviving wild birds into captivity for breeding, but they could find only one, which died before a mate could be located. They may all have been males anyway—“three males in three different territories, just living out their lives” as the very last of their species, says Mounce. (The Po‘o-uli is still listed as endangered, but it’s now been more than 10 years since one was seen.)

Some people see the Po‘o-uli’s story as emblematic of the hopeless situation that native birds face in modern Hawaii. But for Mounce, who moved to Maui in 2006, a little more than a year after the last Po‘o-uli died, it was a wake-up call. To succeed, the Recovery Project would clearly have to become much more proactive, responding to threats to the island’s other endangered birds while relatively stable populations still existed.

Two winters ago, after three years of scouting sites, fencing out ungulates (and then removing the ones that were left inside the fences), and collecting seeds, Mounce and her crew started planting in their first enclosure—7,000 carefully propagated seedlings, months of work wrapped in a sling and sent up the mountain dangling from a helicopter. Once planted out, the first little experimental plots of seedlings with their neat rows of marker flags looked tiny—minute gardens in a vast landscape.

Because the team wants to use seed stock adapted to the restoration area, and because many of the native plants that Kiwikiu depend on for food are themselves rare (the birds eat insects and larvae pulled from berries and branches of such native plants as akala, pilo, and kolea), gathering seeds has been one of the project’s biggest challenges. It has meant long field excursions in areas far from roads just to collect a few Ziplocs of seeds from plants surviving in gulches. “You can’t buy these seeds in a catalogue,” says Jonathan Keyser, who runs the nursery where seeds for the first restoration area were propagated. “They’re not stored in a university lab for our use.”

Last winter Mounce’s crew and a team of state conservationists planted an additional 39,000 plants. Achieving her vision—a “lei on the mountain,” a haven of high forest habitat ringing the volcano throughout the malaria-free zone—will eventually require hundreds of thousands of plants, not to mention, as the reforestation project expands to new land, many thousands of acres and untold miles of fencing.

But the Kiwikiu can’t afford to wait for a lei to take shape. For now the reforestation teams are focusing on creating corridors to connect gulches with remnant forest, hoping to build enough territory for even a few Kiwikiu as soon as they possibly can. Everyone remembers what happened with the Po‘o-uli and the dangers of waiting too long. “If we wait 25 years until the forest is amazing,” Mounce worries, “there may well not be enough Kiwikiu left to translocate.”

The details of the translocation plan are still being worked out, but it will likely begin within five years with a small, gradually expanding group of birds, perhaps as few as six pairs at first. They’ll be pulled from both existing wild populations and captive-bred birds, supported with food in the beginning. Mounce spent years working on a genetic analysis of the remaining Kiwikiu in order to make sure the new population will have sufficient genetic diversity.

The scope of the project is having an unexpected benefit: Instead of intimidating would-be supporters, it’s bringing them in. Mounce wants people to care about the survival of the Kiwikiu for its own sake, as she does—to regard extinction as a painful moral failure. But she’s found it hard to make that case to the general public. After all, she allows, “these are birds that most people will never see.” Someone once asked her, point blank, why it would matter if the Kiwikiu died out entirely. She didn’t know what to say. But now she has an answer: If the prospect of extinction doesn’t concern people, she explains why a restored forest, and the healthy watershed that comes with it, will matter to humans as well as birds. “If you say, ‘You’re going to have no water in Wailea to water your golf course,’ people get that,” says Mounce. Another compelling message: “There was a huge, complicated forest that’s gone. We’re going to put that forest back.”

The appeal is working. A few years ago Mounce tried a crowdfunding campaign to support her Kiwikiu genetics research. It flopped. But when she asked people to sponsor a tree, she says, the project raised more money in a month than in the entire preceding year. There’s now a waiting list of volunteers wanting to fly up to the restoration site and plant trees. Restoration has also opened the door to new partners. Ranchers, sugarcane growers, hotel owners—all understand the value of functional watersheds on a remote island surrounded by salt.

Because Kiwikius are so rare, Mounce trains her field techs to search for them by sound, listening for their whistles high in the misty, mossy canopy of native ‘ohi‘a trees. Those long periods of listening are poignant, Laura Berthold, one of the researchers, tells me: The rainforest is far too quiet. She sits in the mud and tries to imagine what it used to sound like, back when long-disappeared birds filled all the ecological niches that now sit empty. She went to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu to see what she could of those missing species, marveling at the long, strange bills and beautiful plumage of extinct birds.

Mounce is grateful that the young scientists on her crew are able to do more than listen wistfully to a too-silent forest. She’s adamant that they don’t see themselves as documentarians of the final days of Hawaiian birds but as active builders of a more hopeful future. The high stakes in Hawaii, from this angle, are not signs of hopelessness, Mounce says, but of possibility. Where else, she wonders, can you get to see such a clear impact from your work? “Yes,” she acknowledges, “certain things seem like the battle is lost.” Then she lowers her voice to an exasperated whisper: “There are a lot of things where it’s not.

Mounce hadn’t heard Berthold’s description of how she spends her time in the forest, listening for the silent ghosts of missing birds. But the next day she paints a strangely similar picture. In the wide-open grassland of the restoration site, she says, after a long day of planting or seed gathering, she, too, likes to sit in the silence and listen for birds that aren’t there. She looks at the tiny seedlings reaching up from the dry soil but sees instead a spreading koa canopy, an understory thick with native birds’ favorite plants, and hears, high above her, the friendly whistle of a Kiwikiu.