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Native Hawaiians have a deep kinship with Hawaiian forest birds and revere, honor, and deify them as family, ancestors, guardians, spirits, and gods. The connections between Hawaiians, their forests, and birds span centuries, and persist today. 

USGS and USFWS logos with title "An Orchestra of Conservation for the Melodies of Hakalau Forest" featured on an image of a red apapane bird against a blue sky background
The ‘apapane is known to be the most abundant member of the Hawaiian Honeycreeper family and is endemic to Hawai’i. Males and females of the species share in their vibrant reddish-orange coloring tipped with black wings. The ‘apapane has a very melodic and song-like chirp that it can be identified with. These birds are one of several species that are mentioned in the Hawaiian creation chant and are said to have been around since the dawn of time. Because of this, the ‘apapane was said to be a form that many deities took to get around. Like the ‘i‘iwi, the feathers of the ‘apapane were incorporated into many of the pieces of traditional Hawaiian clothing. 

Birds’ ability to fly to remote island habitats have allowed them to, over time, flourish and evolve to be uniquely suited to their landscapes, where they pollinate and disperse the seeds of many forest plant species. The health of native island birds is therefore representative of the health of island forest ecosystems. Native Hawaiians have a deep kinship with Hawaiian forest birds and revere, honor, and deify them as family, ancestors, guardians, spirits, and gods. The connections between Hawaiians, their forests, and birds span centuries, and persist today. 

Geographical isolation also means that island birds are particularly vulnerable to the threats of invasive species and disease. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have recently analyzed three decades of forest bird surveys conducted at the Big Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which comprises two units: the Hakalau Forest unit and the Kona Forest unit. Analysis of the species over time revealed management actions have been key to historically positive trends. However, recent analysis also suggests additional stressors are negatively influencing forest bird populations. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service actively manages the Big Island NWR Complex to protect Hawai‘i’s unique island ecosystem and reduce invasive species’ impacts. The refuge provides vital habitat for threatened and endangered forest birds in Hawai‘i. Management strategies at the refuge complex have varied, depending upon a number of environmental factors, such as elevation, invasive species, and historic land use.

In the study, scientists analyzed three areas of the Hakalau Forest unit over time, accounting for differences in land use. These areas include open-forest, which was once intensively grazed but the forest canopy remained intact (spanning from low to high elevation); closed-forest, which is relatively unmodified by grazing (low elevation); and re-established forest (high elevation), which was logged and grazed for decades prior, but has since been substantially reforested. By 2019, the re-established forest areas included planted stands of native koa trees up to 30 years old, with some native trees and shrubs in the understory.  

Red ‘i‘iwi bird with hooked beak sits on a branch in a green, tropical environment in Hawai'i.
The ‘i‘iwi, known as one of the more beautiful members of the Hawaiian Honeycreeper family, is endemic to Hawai’i. Both males and females of the species are a vibrant red with downward curving scarlet-orange beaks. The song of the ‘i‘iwi is also a part of cultural significance to the Hawaiian people. Legend has it that the demi-god Maui used the ‘i‘iwi to impress other gods that came to visit him. With their sweet songs and their vibrant coloring, these birds were the perfect display of beauty and power.  
Rare photo of greenish/yellow 'alawi sitting on tree bark in a forested area of Hawai'i.
The ʻalawī, a small and unassuming member of the Hawaiian honeycreeper family, is endemic to the island of Hawai’i. Both the males and females of this species have an olive-colored coat with a slightly lighter underbelly, with the males of the species tending to be a bit brighter than the females. Both genders have a small gray mask around their eyes that helps with identification. Their song is a shrill single noted chirp that sometimes has a flare at the end. The ʻalawī did not receive its Hawaiian name until 2017, when a graduate from the University of Hawai’i who was studying Hawaiian language, came across text referencing the bird and its original name.  


This study compared native forest bird surveys between 1987 and 2019, with a closer look at the population trends in the most recent decade, between 2010 and 2019. Between 1987 and 2010, the surveys generally show an upward population trend; however, for surveys between 2010 and 2019, the trend reversed for most species, and populations are now declining. In the low elevation, closed-forest areas, the number of declining species has doubled and even in the higher elevations of the reestablished forest area, populations have declined. Birds experiencing downward trends include: Hawai‘i ‘elepaio, Hawai‘i ‘amakihi , ‘akiapōlā‘au, ‘alawī, Hawai‘i ‘ākepa, ‘i‘iwi, and ‘apapane. The ‘alawī had the most substantial decline. Only the ‘ōma‘o showed an upward trend. 

“This detailed look at the latest decade of Native Hawaiian bird surveys at the Big Island National Wildlife Refuge offers a reminder of the importance of continuous monitoring and timely analysis combined with habitat management. Forest bird surveys provide scientists and managers information about current population abundances and trends. This allows managers to evaluate and adapt management actions to enhance forest bird conservation efforts at the (refuge complex),” said USGS scientist Rick Camp, continuing that, “Understanding the nuances in the last decade could help us to know how to help species for many more decades to come.”

A yellow Akiapola’au sits in a forest on a mossy branch.
A member of the Hawaiian honeycreeper family, the ‘akiapōlā‘au is endemic to the island of Hawai’i. These birds are more well known for their long-curved beaks than for their coloring. Males in the species tend to have bright yellow heads and underbellies with a more yellow green coloring on their backs, while the females have grayish-yellow underbellies and a more olive tone on top. Their songs are whistle like, high pitched, and carry a consistent melody. Sometimes referred to as the “Hawaiian woodpecker,” these birds use their peculiarly shaped beaks to search for food within trees very similarly to the woodpecker.  
Hawai‘i ‘ākepa sits in tropical forested area
The Hawai’i ʻ ākepa is endemic to the island of Hawai’i and a member of the Hawaiian Honeycreeper family. There used to be other ʻ ākepa on Maui and O’ahu, but these subspecies are presumed extinct. The males of the species have a very vibrant orange color while the females tend to have a greyer green coloring with a band around their middles. The ʻ ākepa males and females have a lilt-y almost melancholy song. The ʻ ākepa received its cultural name due to its foraging skills which translates to “quick, nimble, and active.” They are also considered to be spiritual guides to the Hawaiian people and their feathers were used to make several traditional types of clothing.  

“These downward population trends at lower elevations of the Hakalau Forest unit are highly concerning,” said Big Island NWR Complex reputy refuge manager Donna Ball, continuing that, “These trends demonstrate the continued need for habitat management of the refuge to ensure it serves as a haven for forest birds amidst the many challenges they face.” 

Funneling rare birds to higher-elevation forests offers their best hope for survival. Over three decades, the refuge’s planting of koa trees has established a native plant corridor facilitating bird migration to higher elevations. Continuing and enhancing management actions, such as forest restoration and removal of invasive species, allows the Big Island NWR Complex to remain a key site for forest bird conservation in Hawai‘i. 

Five individuals stand in a green field of a forested area looking into the distance and holding binoculars.

Since the refuge’s creation in 1985, community volunteers have replanted more than 600,000 native trees and shrubs. The refuge provides essential habitat for four species of endangered/threatened Hawaiian forest birds: Hawaiʻi ʻākepa, ʻakiapōlāʻau, ʻiʻiwi, and ‘alawī. Reforestation at the upper elevations of the refuge has increased available habitat for forest birds, and control and exclusion of feral ungulates has improved habitat quality. 

The nonprofit organization American Forests collaborated with the Mauna Kea Watershed Alliance and refuge managers to plant a migration corridor running up the slopes of Mauna Kea. This project, called the Kanakaleonui Bird Corridor, has connected the Hakalau Forest unit with the high-elevation forests of Mauna Kea Forest Reserve, which lies above the “mosquito line” - the slopes above 4,500 feet, where mosquitos cannot survive the cool climate. 

A weekend volunteer program, which began in the late 1980s, continues to expand vital habitat for forest birds, addressing this challenging task. People from all walks of life gather koa seeds, nurture seedlings in the greenhouse and then restore the native forest by planting koa, māmane, and ‘ōhi’a lehua trees in mauka to makai (mountain-to-sea) corridors that were three trees wide, spaced 12 feet apart.  

Volunteers lean over to plant trees in grassy area of a forest in Hawai'i

The planted native corridors have attracted birds to the higher elevations, and their droppings have spread seeds of native trees and shrubs. Below 6,000 feet, ‘ōhi'a lehua and koa trees were present, but the understory vegetation was lost due to grazing. By dropping seeds, birds like the ‘ōma‘ō, helped restore the understory vegetation in this area as plants were no longer vulnerable to cattle. 

“The direct results from habitat enhancement have involved aggressive management efforts by the refuge that include fencing, control of feral ungulates and invasive weeds, and reforestation of former pasture lands,” said Ric Lopez, FWS’s Area Administrator. “The associated increase in quality habitat has led to the expansion of forest bird distribution into formerly grazed lands, and an increase in density of native birds within the forested areas of the refuge.”  

The study’s analyses have sparked discussions to understand the stressors affecting these bird species. The collective determination of conservationists, scientists, and local community members to safeguard these forest gems may pave the way for their melodies to continue resonating within Hawai‘i‘s forests for generations to come. 

The Department of the Interior’s Hawai'i's forest birds keystone initiative has bolstered significant collaboration across between partner agencies, Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, State of Hawai‘i, and local and national conservation organizations. To date the administration has invested nearly $33.2 million in Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and Inflation Reduction Act funding on this keystone initiative.

Volunteers and scientists stand amidst tall trees in a Hawaiian forest

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