The fossil record indicates there were at least 71 bird species on the Hawaiian Islands, but today there are only 21 and 11 of these species are endangered. Have you ever wondered why there are so many extinct Hawaiian birds? Read on to find out
Why Are There So Many Extinct Hawaiian Birds?
There are several reasons why Hawaii is a bird extinction hot spot. One of the main reasons contributing to this is the size of the islands; because their island habitats are smallpopulation numbers aren’t high to begin with. Then habitat destruction, cats, dogs, and rats introduced by settlers, avian flu, and a mosquito-borne disease inflicted such blows that their small numbers couldn’t survive the impact.
The famous Hawaiian honeycreepers were so badly affected by the mosquito-borne disease the numbers were decimated. Scientists predict bad news in the future too. The mosquitos are climbing higher up the mountains where other species of native Hawaiian birds live. It’s likely more species will fall ill and risk extinction. Research suggests there is more devastation to come from avian malaria.
There’s always hope that extinct Hawaiian birds will re-emerge. When this happens, animals are called ‘Lazurus animals’ after the biblical character Lazarus who rose from the dead.
Here are 8 extinct Hawaiian birds ranging from flightless rails to tiny brightly-colored honeycreepers.
1. The Hawaiian Crow
Hawaiian crows only lived in western and southwestern Hawaii. They were large birds measured 20-inches with rounded wings and a thick bill. Snails, spiders, and fruit formed the majority of their diet. The fossil record shows numerous Hawaiian crows flew around the islands, but their numbers dwindled due to human hunting, deforestation, and introduced predators like cats and dogs. This incredible-looking crow was declared extinct in the wild in 2002, but there are 115 still in captivity. Conservationists hope to breed Hawaiian crows to release back into the wild.
2. The Poʻouli
These small black-faced honeycreepers were endemic to Maui and lived on the east side feeding on snails, spiders, and nectar. Po’ouli were first discovered in 1973 but rapidly declined due to avian malaria, habitat destruction, and introduced predators. It’s thought the loss of native tree snails due to forest clearance dealt a blow they couldn’t recover from. Recent efforts to prevent the Po’ouli (pronounced poh-oh-u-lee) from extinction failed. Conservationists captured three birds and tried to breed them in captivity, but it was unsuccessful. In 2004 only two birds remained and no further sightings were made. In 2019 they were declared extinct.
3. The Kauaʻiʻakialoa
Another extinct Hawaiian bird is the kaua’i’akialoa. It was a honeycreeper native to Kauai and fairly large at 7.5 inches long. One third of its length was a very long downcurved bill! This bill enabled them to reach nectar in tubular flowers. They also ate insects beneath tree bark, moss, and lichens. Females were dull green and males were bright yellow, but despite their vivid colours, the last kaua’i’akialoa was seen in 1967. No more were discovered and in 2021 it was considered extinct. It’s no surprise that habitat loss and disease lead to their decline.
4. The Molokai Creeper
There’s some debate over whether the Molokai creeper is actually extinct. It’s not official, but the last one was spotted in the montane wet forest at ʻŌhiʻalele Plateau in 1963. Also called the kakwahie, this little 5.5-inch bird was a Hawaiian honeycreeper with bright red or orange feathers and dark wings that the Hawaiians used to decorate royal capes. It had a distinctive song that sounded like cutting wood, but this hasn’t been heard since the 1960s either. As well as nectar, the kakawahie ate forest beetles and larvae. It’s thought they declined due to habitat loss, dwindling food sources, and an introduced disease from mosquitoes.
5. Great Maui crake
Another extinct Hawaiian bird is the Great Maui crake. This rail bird was hunted to extinction in the 12th century so scientists know little about it. It was a flightless bird with small wings, but it was 1.3 feet tall with a long neck. No one is sure about its color, but scientists guess it was grey or brown and similar to its nearest relatives the Hawaiian rail and the Laysan rail. Unfortunately, both rails are extinct as well.
It’s thought the Great Maui crake ate fruit, leaves, and flowers, although no one is certain. It was one of two rails on Maui and most likely the bigger of the two species. Some remains were found in early settlements, but there’s very little to go on. Polynesian settlers most likely hunted crakes for meat and they used its bones and feathers in art.
The Kaua’i’O’o was the smallest of the honeycreepers and lived on Kaui Island. It was mostly black with bright yellow legs and measured 8 inches long. As well as snails and fruit it drank nectar from the Freycinetia arborea flowers found in lowland forests and it nested in forest tree cavities. It was last sighted in 1985 and last heard singing in 1987. Conservationists recorded the world’s last Kaua’i’O’o singing after losing his mate to Hurricane Iwa. When the last Kaua’i’O’o died it ended the scientific family and avian line. However, there is hope that a few may survive in the deep forests because it was annpunced extinct twice before – in 1940 and 1950! Although they were rediscovered in 1970 by biologist John Sincock, no one has seen or heard one since 1987 so the odds are slim.
7. Maui ākepa
The Maui ākepa was another small insectivorous honeycreeper. It was small at around 4 inches long with muted green foliage. Its lower bill was set slightly to one side creating a crossbill, but conservationists aren’t sure why. Most previous sightings were made in the wet montane forests on the northeastern slopes of Haleakala, a huge shield volcano. However, it was last seen in 1988 and heard singing its long quavering whistle in 1995. Other akepa species are clinging on in Hawaii, but sadly this little subspecies is extinct.
8. Large Kauai thrush
Endemic to Kauai island, the large Kauai thrush was 20 centimeters in length with dark brown foliage and black legs. This Hawaiian thrush had a very unusual song of trills, buzzes, flutes, and whistles with a rasping ‘brak’ call. It lived amid lush vegetation and like most Hawaiian birds, it ate insects and fruit. One of its most distinguishing features was its acrobatic abilities. The large Kauai thrush could fly vertically!
Historical records indicate it was one of the most common birds of the Hawaiian Islands. It was discovered in 1862, but habitat destruction, predators, and the new mosquito brought with settlers are the likely causes of its sudden decline soon after. The last sighting was in 1989 in the Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve, so in 2021 it was declared extinct.
It’s sad news that so many of these beautiful birds are lost. There is hope that some may re-emerge. Conservationists are battling to save what we have left, but it’s likely more Hawaiian birds will join the extinction list.
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