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Thoughts of an Iowa Birdwatcher

These will be random thoughts about birds, birders, birdwatching, feeders, reptiles, wildflowers and nature in general. I will specifically discuss conservation interests, and other things as the mood hits me. The topics will probably lean a bit towards of interest to Iowa, as that is where I live.

  • © 2004 by An Iowa Birder.
  • Tuesday, January 13, 2009

    Hawaii’s birds: the Po’ouli and the ’Akepa: Will We Ever Learn?

    My bedtime reading has recently included the Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird: The Discovery and Death of the Po’ouli by Alvin Powell [Mechanicsburg, PA : Stackpole Books, c2008, viii, 280 p. : map ; 22 cm., Includes bibliographical references and index]. This is a fascinating story of work with an endangered species in some of the worst habitat in the U.S.A. Fascinating and depressing: if the subtitle did not give it away, the book opens with death of a captive Po’ouli. The Po’ouli was unknown to science and apparently natives of Hawai’i until its discovery in July 1973 in the state of Hawai’i’s Hana Forest Reserve on Maui. When initially discovered it was not clear to what family this species belonged. Eventually it was found that his species was one of Hawai’i’s honeycreepers, albeit a species very distantly related to the others.

    One would not think that Maui’s with its resorts and beaches could be so miserable, but this is truly one of the most inhospitable places imaginable. This is rainforest so impenetrable that machetes are needed to hack trails, so rainy that researchers are often confined to camp and unable to see anything because of the rain and so cold that researchers caught out of camp needed to huddle together for warmth. At it rained so hard that looking for birds was impossible, confining researchers to tents except for redigging trenches around tent and to take care of things that one did not want to do in your tent.

    After its discovery initial estimates of the Po’ouli’s population was estimated in the low hundreds, and it was added to the endangered within two years of its discovery. Feral pigs, goats, rats and Rosy Wolf Snails took a toll. Wolf Snails are introduced predatory snails that eat native snails. One diet items of the Po’ouli are snails. It was clear that the population was crashing. The fact that Po’ouli’s do not sing and their only call is a nondescript chip that sounds like other species made population estimates difficult, especially when coupled with the topography and climate.

    The Hawaiian Forest Bird Survey ran from 1976-83 and attempted to identify the distribution and population size of all forest birds on five islands. Population was ca 140, down 80-99% from initial estimates. Pig activity was increasing dramatically. A variety of strategies were thought about: Fencing and removal of feral pigs, establishment of a second population, captive breeding, among others. Fencing was tried first, but the steep, gullied nature of the landscape made it very difficult and hideously expensive. By the time bureaucratic arguments over what permits were needed from what agency were settled it was 1986. Still the population fell. The next survey suggested a population of six [two pair and 2 single birds]. By the time the next year past, both pairs had lost their mates and one single bird disappeared. At this point thoughts turned to relocation. Since the remaining three birds’ territories did not over lap, they would never meet and mate on their own. Captive breeding was viewed as the last resort. Captive breeding has had it successes, but much was unknown about this species and honeycreepers are difficult to breed. Precious little was known about Po’oulis, only one or two nests were ever found and I think only once was an adult observed feeding young. So was decided to relocate individuals from one territory to another in hopes that the birds would meet naturally and breed. One problem with relocation is that many vertebrates are very faithful to their home ranges. Permit issues delayed the start of relocations. Not surprisingly, relocations met with failure as relocated birds returned to their home ranges. Captive breeding was going to be tried. Again permit issues slowed things down. One bird was captured and brought into a place where it was hoped to start captive breeding. The bird sickened, lost weight and died on November 26, 2004. I do not believe a living Po’ouli was seen again. Upon necropsy, this bird appeared to be extremely old.

    The book ends on a rather optimistic note, certain that we are better off today than we were 30 years ago to preserve a rare species. People should have learned from the problems and clearly everyone realized that efforts should have started far earlier. Yet I open the November 11 issue of Nature and see ‘Feathers Fly over Hawaiian Bird’, a news/commentary item by Rex Dalton [Nature Vol 456: 682-683]. In this Dalton describes infighting between ornithologists from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and refuge staff for the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge on the island of Hawai’i. The ornithologists believe that the ’akepa [yet another threatened Hawaiian Honeycreeper] is undergoing a population crash and suggest that competition with the invasive Japanese White-eye over food is a major factor. Refuge officials believe there is no decline. In published papers Leonard Freed suggests that poor nutrition makes the ’akepa prone to parasites. He suggests that there are only 4000 ’akepa on the refuge and over 20000 Japanese White-eyes. The refuge’s wildlife biologist admits to not even reading the paper.

    Will we ever learn?


    A picture and recording of the Po’ouli can be found at
    Po’ouli Image and sound recording
    and more information at
    Po’ouli Facts/

    A film of the ’Akepa is at
    ’Akepa Film
    more information is at
    ’Akepa Factsheet


    • At 9:17 AM, Blogger Ross said…

      Great summary. I worked on this project for 6 months (participated in hiking the Po-ouli down the mountain to the lower Hanawi for the translocation) and really appreciated your final comments regarding the Japanese White-eye...on Maui, there is another invasive bird called the Japanese Bush Warbler, which is morphologically very similar to Maui Creepers...and other creepers in general. While I worked there, I also learned that whereas we were allowed to remove rats, we were not permitted to remove cats, feral pigs, or other invasive birds. Seemed to me that if humans are going to spend time in these fragile ecosystems, they may as well be doing as much good for the native species as they can. We just may never learn...hope you're enjoying your work with micro these days! I'm a grad student at ISU.

    • At 7:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      I've just seen your posting on the po`ouli and akepa, and it looks as if you have a very high-quality blog. I hope I can return from time to time to check your postings.

      I came upon your posting loosely in connection with your noting that the refuge biologist had not read the paper by Freed.

      The first 20 years of my career as a biologist were spent largely in university employment, and I am now in semi-retirement working as a state government employee in "applied science", largely as a civil servant working to help my agency meet its rapidly growing mandates (because of population growth absent agency growth), with fewer staff and sparser resources.

      I would like to read the news item on "Feathers fly" from Nature, but my organization does not have access to the journal content; my public library system does not have access to the journal content; state university access is not available to my location--and would only be available by purchasing a community-user account and visiting a facility in person (no remote access); and I cannot justify an individual subscription to Nature given my reduced pay, hammered retirement accounts, and assistance diverted to struggling family members.

      That gives an excessive view of my personal position, but I can't help but wonder if the refuge biologist was similarly hampered in staying abreast of the literature pertinent to his charge. It is very easy to say "That is her (or his) job! He should stay informed, and can request reprints from authors, and so forth." I would have thought similarly before becoming a "governmental" employee, as opposed to a "university" one.

      It is a completely different world when one does not have access to mainline databasing/indexing systems and access to institutional subscription packages. While USFWS should be better-resourced in this way than where my concerns lie, it is a fact that many governmental scientists (= the overwhelming bulk of professional biologists in the US; many times greater in size than university-affiliated scientists) work without access to current science, unless they choose to privately finance (not via grant funding) subscriptions to a subset of especially-relevant journals (which is common).

      Had the refuge biologist not read the paper because he or she did not have access to the content? Your posting could imply that the biologist knew of the paper, may have known of its general conclusions (by way of the title, abstract, or second-hand communication), but chose not to follow-up because it was not considered of sufficient merit: would this be correct?

      "Will we ever learn?" could obviously ask about many aspects of this problem, but it would seem a cop-out not to prioritize which aspects seem more important than others, at least in this example.

      More generally, for the vast bulk of professional biologists working in the US, where large-scale T&E species work has often been presented as without peer, how would you propose they stay abreast of publications and access article content in their fields? Do you know of especially good information systems for individual subscription--any that would include Nature and the outlet for Freed's referenced paper?

      Do you know if Freed paid the professional courtesy of delivering reprints (paper or electronic) to refuge staff or managers? Before the Internet, such practice was relatively common. One would send reprints to colleagues and others who might take interest in the work. Now, we are all presumed to have "instantaneous" access to custom-crafted literature reviews with links to download the publications?

      My main questions are somewhat off the topic of the Freed vs. refuge conflict, I believe (although I still haven't seen the relevant texts). Still, access to information is a basic need for all scientists. Most of them in the US, however, labor under severe information-access handicaps. Are there birders in Hawaii who have access to publications who would share them with government scientists?

    • At 7:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      The story of the po'ouli is too sad. Hawaii is a difficult place to live when you care about endemic species because of the multiple threats. However, in regards to the mention of akepa, there are a large number of very respectable scientists here that disagree with Dr. Freed's conclusions. You can find a follow-up letter here: Also, the local eco-muckraker newsletter "Environment Hawaii" did a very in-depth retrospective of the Freed/Hakalau controversy in 2006 (you have to pay to get it online). The former manager, Jack Jeffrey (now retired) has a sterling reputation as a wildlife biologist here in Hawaii, and is an avid bird watcher/lover (he won an Ansel Adams award for his bird photography). I thought that was a really important point to note. I work in the same building as the Hakalau staff, and they strike me as caring, hardworking folk. The birds are number one priority over there.
      Also, to comment on the last poster's comments, I agree with his assessment of the poor information access for feds. I work part-time for an agency that is heavily involved in conservation here in Hawaii, but because our agency is under direct authority of the USDA, the only journals we are given access to are almost exclusively agricultural! luckily i am still associated with the university, so i can use that access for research. for as much as they heavily rely on IT, it does not appear to be the fed's strong point!

    • At 3:41 PM, Blogger an Iowa Birderwatcher said…

      I am pleased that involved people are reading my intermittent ramblings.

      I missed the letter in Nature and will read it upon my return to IA.

      For the future, when I retire from my day job, one of the things I hope to do is to blog more regularly.


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