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Efforts Joined to Save Puaiohi from Extinction

Tomorrow, kumu and haumana from a Hawaiian cultural institute – Ka ‘Imi Na‘auao O Hawai‘i Nei – will lead celebrations in Koke‘e State Park to mark the 14th release of captive-bred Puaiohi or Small Kaua‘i Thrush into the Alaka‘i Wilderness Preserve on Kaua‘i, as part of ongoing efforts to save the species from extinction.

The celebrations were hosted by the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project and led by one of Ka ‘Imi’s Kaua‘i kumu, Keahi Manea. In attendance were staff from the San Diego Zoo’s Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program and the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife, as well as other long-time supporters. The event commemorated the upcoming release of 22 juveniles of this critically endangered songbird back into the wild. The Puaiohi is one of several species of endangered forest bird found only on Kaua‘i.

The songs and dances invoked the protection and good will of the gods and the elders for the birds and their habitat, as well as for the biologists who study and work to conserve them. One song, written especially for the event, highlighted the contribution of the released Puaiohi in augmenting the size of the wild population, which only numbers a few hundred birds.

Keahi Manea commented about her composition, “This mele was composed from the point of view of a newly released bird, calling for a mate among the Alaka‘i flock. He describes her and her habitat and invites her to gather food with him and share a nest to raise their young, helping to fulfill the desire of the malihini (researchers) that the newly released birds and their kama‘āina mates will thrive and multiply and extend their families in the mist of Kawaikōī. I am especially honored today that my kumu, Roselle Bailey, joined the celebration.”

“The release of these birds is a cause for celebration for anybody that cares about Hawaiian birds and the important ecological and cultural role that they play,” said Lisa “Cali” Crampton, the project coordinator for the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project.

Hawai‘i may be considered paradise, but for the Puaiohi, life on the island of Kaua‘i can be difficult. Non-native feral ungulates, such as wild pigs and goats, degrade the birds’ habitat; non-native rats kill nesting Puaiohi females, chicks and eggs; and mosquitoes carry avian malaria and avian pox. In 1994, it was estimated that only 200 Puaiohi survived in the wild.

The extremely low numbers of Puaiohi prompted a collaboration by scientists from the San Diego Zoo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW), United States Geological Survey Biological Resource Division, and The Peregrine Fund, to prevent the extinction of the Puaiohi. Together, these organizations monitor the wild Puaiohi population and manage the captive propagation of this species.

To boost the species’ population, in 1996 eggs were taken from the Alaka‘i and hatched on Kaua‘i; the chicks were then hand-reared and taken to the Keauhou and Maui Bird Conservation Centers, on the Big Island and Maui, respectively. As a result of the successful captive breeding program, the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) started reintroducing these birds into the Alaka‘i in 1999, and with this upcoming release, 222 Puaiohi will have been released into the wild.

“We are delighted that more than 15 years of conservation action has forestalled the extinction of the Puaiohi,” remarked Richard Switzer of HEBCP. These wonderful birds are a unique part of Kaua‘i’s natural and cultural heritage, now with a more secure future thanks to this conservation partnership.”

Captive breeding alone cannot prevent the Puaiohi’s extinction and the Puaiohi also benefits from state and federal funding, legal protection, public awareness campaigns, lesson plans in the Hawai‘i public schools, and surveys of the wild population. Because the Puaiohi is federally listed as an endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides financial support and contributes scientific guidance to the State of Hawai‘i to support the recovery effort. The Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project of DOFAW and the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit, with input from experts, are responsible for developing the management tools that are contributing to the bird’s survival in the Alaka‘i Wilderness Preserve and Koke‘e State Park on Kaua‘i.

“Releasing captive birds is insufficient to ensure the survival of the Puaiohi on Kaua‘i. We also need to increase our management efforts to protect the bird’s habitat from invasive plants and non-native predators and ungulates,” said David Leonard, a wildlife biologist that oversees forest bird recovery at DOFAW. “We must reduce predation by non-native mammals and minimize the threat of disease as much as possible.”