The discovery on Maui of a lone kiwikiu — thought to be long dead following a failed attempt to establish a second population of the critically endangered species — is giving hope to conservationists working to save the bird from extinction.
The bird was spotted alive and well Wednesday in the Nakula Natural Area Reserve high on the leeward slopes of Haleakala 20 months after it disappeared and was presumed dead.
“It was a very incredible moment, to find this bird alive and doing so well,” said Zach Pezzillo with the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project. Pezzillo recounted the story of how he found the bird in a virtual news conference today.
With a pair of binoculars, Pezzillo was able to spot the bird’s unique leg bands and he knew it was the bird designated as No. 1, the first male kiwikiu captured in the Hanawi Natural Area Reserve on the windward side of Haleakala in 2019 for removal to a new home.
During the October 2019 translocation mission, seven wild kiwikiu from Hanawi were released into Nakula as part of a larger effort to establish kiwikiu in newly restored forests and expand the available habitat to help prevent the extinction of a species thought to have a population with fewer than 150 individuals.
Within a few weeks, five of the seven wild translocated kiwikiu died, the surprise victims of avian malaria, which had reached a higher elevation than had been expected. The other two were missing but scientists assumed they there felled by the same disease.
“The fact that he is doing so well out there and evading detection this long is really unbelievable,” said Hanna Mounce, coordinator of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project.
In an earlier statement, Mounce called the discovery “an amazing sign of hope” for the species that conservationists still may have time to save.
“Work needs to continue on avian disease and mosquito control as the rate of survival from malaria is low overall for this species with only one in seven surviving. This is a hopeful sign that a population of kiwikiu and other native forest birds could survive in restored landscapes in the future, especially without mosquitoes and disease,” she said.
However, officials said the discovery is unlikely to change the current plan to save the bird, which includes capturing up to 30 kiwikiu and shipping them to zoo facilities in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Utah while officials figure out how to control the disease-carrying mosquitoes in the wild.
Lainie Berry, a biologist with the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife, told the Board of Land and Natural Resources in April that the species will reach “functional extinction” by 2027 unless officials take action.
While removing 30 birds from the wild population would shorten the extinction timeline by an estimated three years, Berry said it is worth the risk to protect a portion of the population from avian malaria.
She called the mainland move a temporary one — until a Hawaii site can be secured for safe release.
“We will carefully analyze what led to the survival of No. 1, but it’s much too soon to say whether this will change our options for trying to save kiwikiu,” Mounce said. “We thought we had lost all the translocated birds to malaria, but this one’s survival has given us hope and encouragement, that maybe, just maybe, we can save this incredible species before it’s too late.”