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Avian malaria, a non-native disease transmitted by invasive mosquitoes, is driving the potential extinction of four endemic Hawaiian honeycreepers: ‘akikiki, ‘akeke‘e, kiwikiu, and ʻākohekohe. Two of the species have fewer than 200 birds remaining and could go extinct in the next few years. A new report details potential conservation strategies and their biological and biocultural considerations.

Image: An Endangered Honeycreeper, the `Akikiki (Kaua`i Creeper), in Hawaii
 The 'akikiki (Oreomystis bairdi).

Hawai‘i's endemic forest birds are facing an immediate extinction crisis. Across the Hawaiian Islands, native forest birds have been experiencing population declines that have accelerated in the last one to two decades. Once, there were more than 50 species of honeycreepers spread across the islands – today, only 17 species remain, most of which are restricted to small areas of habitat too cold for mosquitoes and avian disease. While habitat loss, invasive species, and non-native predators have negatively affected forest bird species for hundreds of years, and continue to do so, introduced diseases, particularly avian malaria, are the greatest threat to forest birds today.

Climate change has increased temperatures in the high-elevation forests, facilitating the spread of disease into areas that were once largely disease-free. Rapid population declines have now (2022) pushed four Hawaiian honeycreeper species to the brink of extinction: the endangered ‘akikiki (Oreomystis bairdi) and ‘akeke‘e (Loxops caeruleirostris) on Kaua‘i Island, and kiwikiu (Pseudonestor xanthophrys) and ‘ākohekohe (Palmeria dolei) on Maui Island. The kiwikiu and ‘akikiki, have less than 200 individuals remaining and could go extinct in as little as two years. As climate change accelerates, mosquitoes are expanding their range into upper elevation forests, threatening what little safe habitat these birds have left. 

A new report with by the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Office of Native Hawaiian Relations and published by the Hawai‘i Cooperative Studies Unit at University of Hawai‘i at Hilo provides the current status of each of the four bird species, potential conservation actions that might be implemented to prevent their extinction, and considerations for decision makers.

Image: An Endangered Honeycreeper, the  `Akeke`e (Kauai Akepa), in Hawaii
The ‘akeke‘e (Loxops caeruleirostris)