The birds of Hawaii have their own horror movie, and it’s called The Mosquitoes. Instead of Alfred Hitchcock as the one behind this force of terror, it’s climate change (but that’s the reason for most of our problems today). Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison released a study in Global Change Biology on how “global climate change will affect future malaria risk to native Hawaiian bird populations in the coming century.”
Cold environments are no man’s lands for mosquitoes, but the study’s authors predict that as temperatures rise so will the elevations that mosquitoes will penetrate. The intruding mosquitoes will expedite the disease infection rate amongst the native birds, ruining their few “disease-free refuges.” According to staff member Hanna Mounce of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project, these sanctuaries comprise of a narrow strip of land in the Haleakala Forest in which all of the island’s native bird species live.
That thin sliver of land will shrivel even more as mosquitoes infiltrate the area and spread avian pox and avian malaria, diseases responsible for almost wiping out Hawaii’s native forest birds. Mounce reported mosquitoes with avian malaria to be the number one inhibitor of Maui’s native birds, who once could be found all over the island. Some bird species suffer a 90 percent death rate from these malaria parasites, which can be transferred from just one mosquito bite.
Surrounded by miles of water, Hawaii’s native birds cannot flee northward from climate change and “increased disease stressors” like their winged cousins on larger land masses. Despite the birds’ bleak future, Mounce isn’t ready to succumb the names of local birds to the World Wildlife Fund’s extinct species list.
“A positive side of all of this is a big push for restoring higher elevation forest habitats,” she said.
The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project is working on restoring areas on the leeward side of Haleakala in the Nakula Natural Area Reserve, and putting ranch lands back into the forest to create new homes for the endangered native birds. Efficient ways for restoring large landscape areas are also being brainstormed. Many helping hands volunteer to plant trees, some of which require camping trips. The organization’s current project is preventing the extinction of the kiwikiu, the most endangered bird species on Maui with a population of only about 500.
The U.S. Geological Survey researchers are a part of this idealistic outlook. They listed a number of ways natural resource managers and land managers can contribute to the livelihood of the Hawaiian native bird species.
“Because these effects are unlikely to appear before mid-century, natural resource managers have time to implement conservation strategies to protect these unique species from further decimation,” stated a July 17 USGS news release. “Land managers could work toward preventing forest bird number declines by restoring and improving habitat for the birds, reducing mosquitoes on a large scale and controlling predators of forest birds.”
And no, we weren’t talking about the mynah birds that meander around Foodland parking lots. Mounce said a lot of people are confused on how Maui’s birds are endangered when they seem to be everywhere. The birds you see walking down South Kihei Road aren’t native species and are therefore disease-resistant. Mounce went on to say that the real native birds of Hawaii have not been exposed to diseases, and since evolution takes a long time the native birds are now in small fragmented populations.
“Hawaiian forest birds are some of the most threatened forest birds in the world,” said Michael Samuel, a USGS Wisconsin Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit scientist, in the same July 17 news release. “They are totally unique to Hawaii and found nowhere else. They are also important to the Hawaiian culture.”
At least this problem has a solution. Put your gardening gloves on and restore Maui’s natural forests. Do we really want our island’s bird to become the pigeon?
For more information, please contact the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project at 808-573-0280 or online at Mauiforestbirds.org.
Photo of Palila: Jack Jeffrey/USGS