The original Polynesians helped wipe our many species. They altered large areas for farming and used fire to destroy pristine forests. Also, bird feathers were highly prized for the making of lei, for featherwork in capes and helmets, and for the large kahili fans that indicated rank among the ali'i. Introduced exotic birds and the new diseases they carried are another major reason for reduction of native bird numbers, along with predation by the mongoose and rat—especially upon ground-nesting birds. Bird malaria and bird pox were also devastating to the native species. Mosquitoes, unknown in Hawaii until they were accidentally introduced at Lahaina in 1826, infected most native birds, causing a rapid reduction in bird life. However, the most damaging factor by far is the assault upon native forests by agriculture and land developers. The vast majority of Hawaiian birds evolved into specialists. They lived in only one small area and ate a very limited number of plants or insects, which, when removed or altered, resulted in the birds demise.
Theodore Roosevelt established the Northwest Islands as a National Wildlife Reserve in the early 20th century, and efforts have continued since then to preserve Hawaii's unique avifauna. Many fine organizations are fighting the battle to preserve Hawaii’s natural heritage, including: Hawaii Audubon Society, University of Hawaii, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, World Wildlife Fund, and Hawaii Department of Natural Resources. While visiting Hawaii make sure to obey all rules regarding the natural environment. Never disturb nesting birds or their habitat while hiking. Be careful with fire and never cut living trees. If you spot an injured or dead bird do not pick it up, but report it to the local office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Only through the conscientious effort of all concerned does Hawaii’s wildlife stand a chance of surviving.
One of the most amazing families of all the birds on the face of earth is known as Drepanidinae, or Hawaiian honeycreepers. More than 40 distinct types of honeycreepers currently exist, although many more are suspected to have become extinct even before the arrival of Captain Cook, when a record was started. The honeycreepers have differing body types. Some look like finches, while others resemble warblers, thrushes, blackbirds, parrots, and even woodpeckers. Their bills range from long, pointed honeysuckers to tough, hooked nutcrackers. They are the most divergently evolved birds in the world. If Darwin, who studied the birds of the Galapagos Islands, had come to Hawaii, he would have found bird evolution that would make the Galapagos seem like child’s play.
More Endangered Endemic Birds
Maui is the last home of the crested honeycreeper ('akohekohe), which lives only on the windward slope of Haleakala from 4,500 to 6,500 feet. It once lived on Moloka'i but no longer. A rather large bird, it averages seven inches long and is predominantly black. Its throat and breast are tipped with gray feathers; bright orange decks its neck and underbelly. A distinctive fluff of feathers forms a crown. It primarily eats "ohi'a" flowers, and it’s believed the crown feathers gather pollen and help propagate the "ohi'a". The Maui parrotbill is another endangered bird found only on the slopes of Haleakala above 5,000 feet. It has an olive-green back and yellow body. Its most distinctive feature is the parrot-like bill, which it uses to crack branches and pry out larvae.
The po'ouli is a dark brown, five-inch bird with a black mask and dark brown feet. It has a with a black mask and dark brown feet. It has a short tail and sports a conical bill. It was saved from extinction through efforts of the Sierra Club and Audubon Society, who successfully had it listed on the Federal List of Endangered Species. The bird has one remaining stronghold deep in the forests of Maui.
Two endangered waterbirds are the Hawaiian stilt (ae'o) and the Hawaiian coot ('alae ke'oke'o). The stilt is a 16-inch, very thin wading bird. The adults will pretend to be hurt, putting on an excellent "broken-wing" performance to lure predators away from their nests. The Hawaiian coot is a web-footed waterbird that resembles a duck. Found on all islands but mostly on Kauai, it has dull gray feathers, a white bill, and white tail feathers. It builds a large floating nest and vigorously defends its young. The dark-rumped petrel is slightly different from other petrels that are primarily marine birds. This petrel can usually be seen around the visitors center at Haleakala Crater about an hour after dusk from May through October.
The 'i'iwi is endemic bird not endangered at the moment. It's found mainly on Maui, Hawai'i, and Kaua'i in forests above 2,000 feet. It, too, feeds on insects and flowers. The 'i'iwi is known for its harsh voice, which sounds like a squeaking hinge but is also capable of a melodious song.
The 'elepaio is found on several of the islands and is fairly common in the rainforest. This longtailed, five-inch brown bird can be coaxed to come within touching distance of the observer. This bird was the special 'aumakua (personal spirit) of canoe builders in ancient lore. The 'apa-pane, the most common native bird, is the easiest to see. It’s quick and flitty and has a wide variety of calls and songs, from beautiful warbles to mechanical buzzes. Its feathers, like those of the 'i'iwi, were sought by Hawaiians to produce distinctive capes and helmets for the ali'i.
This Hawaiian owl is found on all of the main islands, but mostly on Maui, especially in Haleakala Crater. The pueo is one of the oldest examples of an 'aumakua in Hawaiian mythology. It was an especially benign and helpful guardian. Old Hawaiian stories abound in which a pueo came to the aid of a warrior in distress or a defeated army. Arriving at a tree in which pueo had alighted, the soldiers are safe from their pursuers and are under the protection of "the wings of an owl". The many introduced barn owls in Hawaii are easily distinguished from a pueo by their heart-shaped faces. The pueo is about 15 inches tall with a mixture of brown and white feathers. The eyes are large, round, and yellow, and the legs are heavily feathered, unlike those of a barn owl. Pueo chicks are a distinct yellow color.
The nene, or Hawaiian goose, deserves special mention because it is Hawaii’s state bird and is making a comeback from the edge of extinction. Nene are raised at the Wildfowl Trust in Slimbridge, England, which placed the first birds at Haleakala, and at the Hawaiian Fish and Game Station at Pohakuloa, along the Saddle Road on Hawai'i. By the 1940s, fewer than 50 birds lived in the wild. Now approximately 125 birds live on Haleakala and 500 on the Big Island. Although the birds can be raised successfully in captivity, their life in the wild is still in question. The nene is a perfect symbol of Hawaii: let it be, and it will live.
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