Molokai’s Kākāwahie: a lost species


By Catherine Cluett Pactol

Blazing orange feathers flash among the ‘ohia foliage of Molokai’s lower forests. The bird’s “chip chip chip” call is punctuated by its beak tapping on the branches in search of insects, which it also finds deep in the liko lehua, or buds.

This is the kākāwahie, or Molokai vine, an endemic bird found only on Molokai. But it is not a sight or a sound that we will never be able to feel. Kākāwahie has not been seen since 1963, and it is about to be declared extinct.

“It has been so long since the kākāwahie graced the forests of the lowlands of Molokai that perhaps no one in living memory can tell what the bird looked like or remember its song,” Sam said. Gon, scientist and cultural practitioner at The Nature. Conservancy Hawaii. “Yet we know from various sources that this bird, like other so-called ‘Hawaiian creepers’ was common in our forests and methodically made its way around (crawling) tree trunks, searching through the bark for insects to eat. “

The kākāwahie has been on the federal government’s endangered species list since 1970. Its disappearance is not new, but in September, the US Fish and Wildlife announced it was on a list of 22 other species proposed for the withdrawal of the endangered species law – a move that would officially mark it extinct.

“This designation of this bird labeled extinct is a reflection of the human impact on our environment,” said Penny Martin of Molokai, longtime educator and conservationist. “It’s a sad thing and no one wants to admit it’s our fault, but it is.”

Only three species of native forest birds live on Molokai today. It’s a trend seen statewide – seven of the other species on the US Fish and Wildlife’s extinction list are also native Hawaiian birds, and many more survive in extremely low numbers. This is largely due to habitat loss and introduced diseases, especially pests that are deadly to native bird species that are carried by mosquitoes. The introduction of invasive species is also an important factor in both habitat loss and competition for resources, according to biologists.

Molokai disappearance

Fish Division and Game Warden Noah Pekelo, Jr. was the last person to report seeing the kākāwahie in 1963 in the Kamakou area. Since then, starting in 1978, extensive surveys of Molokai forest birds have been carried out every 10 years, and even in the first survey no kākāwahie were found, said Fern Duvall, a wildlife biologist at Hawaii specializes in native birds.

“It’s very sad. It’s just irreplaceable,” Duvall said. “No one can go out like Pekelo and see this shiny bird moving around in the trees. You can’t hear its sounds and know what the role is. important that the bird was playing on Molokai – no one studied it, we’ll never know, it’s really tragic.

Its cultural value on Molokai also does not appear to be well documented. Historically, skilled bird catchers known as kia manu collected brightly colored bird feathers for Hawaiian feather work – capes, helmets, and necklaces usually worn by ali’i. Although the scarlet feathers of the i’iwi and the apapane were commonly used for featherwork, Gon said he had not heard of the kākāwahie’s shiny plumage sought for this purpose. However, Duvall pointed out that because kākāwahie has only been found on Molokai, it may simply have not been documented. Because the kia manu had such an intimate understanding of the habits of birds, Duvall suggested that the parents of the island kia manu might come forward to share any knowledge imparted to them about kākāwahie.

Meet the Kākāwahie

Measuring five inches long, males had bright reddish or orange feathers and females sported rust-colored plumage. The birds thrived in lowland forests. Even in Kalae, kākāwahie was apparently a common spectacle, based on a collection of native bird skins, including at least half a dozen kākāwahie, which had been captured in Kalae in the early 1900s, according to Duvall.

The kākāwahie preferred the sub-branches rather than the tops of taller trees, which would likely have been seen frequently, Gon said. A study of native birds from the University of Hawaii Hilo called it a “curious and active bird.”

The kākāwahie was named for the way it pecked at branches and its call “chip”: “kākā” means to hit or cut and “wahie” is a suitable wood for making fire, according to Gon.

“They looked for insects in the closed buds of lehua trees, this is the only bird that did that,” Duvall said of the kākāwahie. “Now you will often find a whole set of insects feeding on the liko. There is a lot of insect damage. No one else found out that there were insects in the liko, a special feeding strategy used by the bird…. So he had a special role in the Molokai [ecosystem], here we go.

Today, only two species of forest birds native to Molokai can still be easily found – amakihi and apapane – and these are increasingly rare. Duvall said i’iwi are “very rare” on Molokai, surviving only in some areas of Kamakou. Fewer than 10 birds are alive on the island, according to the latest records.

Despite the alarming number, Duvall said that “Molokai may still be able to save the i’iwi” by controlling the mosquito population.

Another bird that has completely disappeared from the forests of Molokai is the kiwikiu, a rare honey vine with a parrot-like bill. Fewer than 150 of them are still alive on Maui, according to recent polls. The ‘akohekohe, too, resided on Molokai, but can now only be found in a very limited area above 5,000 feet elevation on Haleakala. Oloma`o has not been seen on Molokai since 1988.


“While this species was only known to Molokai, [the kākāwahie’s] the range was nevertheless actually quite wide based on historical records, and because of this, the fact that it was ultimately considered extinct should raise concerns about the probable cause of its extinction: transmitted diseases by mosquitoes and habitat loss, which means that much of those native forests and shrubs in which it once lived has likely been destroyed by fires and incursions by weeds and hoofed mammals like the cows, goats, pigs and deer over the past two centuries, ”said Russell Kallstrom, interim head of The Nature Conservancy Molokai. “Molokai only owns 13% of the native forest it once owned, which also collects and supplies almost all of our drinking water. So it is important to protect what we have left, not only for these species, but by realizing how much we as the kākāwahie rely on these special places and all that they do for us, as does the complex web of creatures. who reside there, knowing no other home.

Gon explained that after the introduction of cattle and goats and the uncontrolled increase in their populations in the early 1800s, the lowland forests of Molokai were destroyed. Only a small part of the forest habitat remained.

“Also in the 1800s, mosquitoes, bird malaria, and bird pox were introduced by the introduction of foreign songbirds,” Gon continued. “The introduced songbirds were resistant to disease, but, as the native Hawaiians were susceptible to foreign diseases, our native birds were very susceptible to introduced avian diseases, and wherever there were mosquitoes, the native birds were disappearing, killed by the disease. sickness. Over the years, all of the rarer birds have succumbed, leaving only ‘amakihi and’ apapane today.

What we can do

Mosquitoes can carry and spread avian malaria, a disease fatal to many native forest birds – a bite from an infected mosquito can kill them. A multi-agency Hawaii initiative called “Birds, Not Mosquitoes” seeks a last-ditch effort to save species like the iiwi and the kiwikiu by promoting the use of a common, natural bacteria as “birth control. mosquitoes “of sorts, to suppress mosquito populations. Only male mosquitoes, which do not bite birds or humans and do not transmit disease, would be released. These male mosquitoes would mate with wild female mosquitoes, but their eggs would not hatch, creating a safe and targeted solution to dramatically reduce mosquito populations, scientists say.

Among the climbing bird family – of which the kākāwahie, i’iwi, and kiwikui are all a part – there were historically over 50 different species in Hawaii. Today, only 17 species exist today, and many in critical numbers.

“It’s a race against time to save these birds,” said Duvall.

Another way to help preserve these species is to plant native trees and plants, Duvall said. Replacing what was once here will ensure birds have food at lower elevations so mosquitoes can be controlled.

Martin said education is also essential.

“In schools, now we pay more attention to [how ecosystems work] and hopefully create better stewards, ”she said. “Often our actions are not intentional, just because we don’t know. “

She gave the example of an aunt inadvertently carrying small fire ants home as a gift from the island of Hawaii. The same goes for invasive historical introductions.

“Surely, if they knew that mosquitoes or pigs would cause this bird to become extinct one day, they would have done things differently,” Martin said. “They don’t want to know that they are responsible for a bird never being seen on this planet again.”

This is why it is so important to be informed of the choices we make today, she added.

“[You might say,] ‘We do not care? It’s just a bird, ”Martin continued. “But it’s all part of the ecosystem, it’s like removing the spokes from the wheel. Every time we lose something in this ecosystem, it has a role and affects the way things work. “

Even though we will never hear the chipping of the kākāwahie, there may still be time to help our grandchildren see the scarlet feathers of the i’iwi floating in the forests of Molokai.


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