One of the rarest birds in the world, the Palila (Loxioides bailleui), is continuing to see it’s numbers fall and the last survey shows only about 1200 individuals still surviving. Living mainly on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea of the Big Island, Hawaii the bird is threatened by continued loss of habitat and being preyed on by feral cats.
The Palilia is a critically endangered species of Hawaii honey-creeper that has a very particular habitat type. They favour living above the moist forest tree-line with a preference for mamane tree. They now only live in 10% of their previous range. The birds are unique in that they feed on the seeds of the mamane tree despite the seeds containing levels of alkaloid toxins that will quickly kill other small animals.
The continuing fall in numbers are causing a concern that the species may be at real risk of extinction if it does not receive major conservation support. The United States Geological Survey count has shown that numbers appears to have fallen even further this year compared to recent year population levels of over 2,000 and numbers as high as over 4,400 in 2003.
“These latest figures tell us that it is imperative that we act quickly to protect this bird now. We know what needs to be done to protect this species, and every day that goes by without those actions being implemented brings it one step closer to extinction,” said George Wallace, Vice President for Oceans and Islands of American Bird Conservancy (ABC).
There are a number of issues that need to be tackled quickly in order to ensure the survival of the species including;
- predation of the birds and chicks in particular by feral cats
- new growth and seedlings of the mamane tree being eaten by goats and sheep reducing food sources and habitat
- an ongoing drought leading to loss of the moist forest environment through wildfires
While there is little that can be done to deal with the ongoing drought, efforts are being put into tackling the impacts of the livestock and cats. A major conservation project is the building of a 59 mile 6 foot high fence around the critical habitat of the bird. The fence will enclose 94% of the designated critical habitat for the bird. It is hoped that the fence will keep out the livestock and protect the mamane trees from being grazed on. Seeds from the mamane tree form most of the birds diet, but mamane flowers, buds, and leaves are also used as food, when the seeds are scarce. Green mamane seeds also support caterpillars that are fed to Palila chicks. This means that Palila reproduction is tied to mamane seed pod availability and the overall quality of the mamane forest.
Part of the fence is being paid for by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) who spent over $900,000 in 2009 and have committed a further $1.4 million this year to help towards the cost of the fence. The cost of the fence is particularly high because of the terrain and few roads. This means much of the manpower and supplies have to be flown in by helicopter. Once completed non native mammals will be eradicated from the area and the area will be monitored to prevent re-introductions.
“This is a fantastic contribution to a vital conservation effort,” said Paul Conry, DOFAW Administrator. “The new funding support will allow us to construct nearly half of the fence. Completion of the fence and true protection of Palila critical habitat is in sight.”
“FWS is committed to working with our partners to conserve Hawaii’s remaining imperiled birds,” said Loyal Mehrhoff, field supervisor for the agency’s Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office. “The Palila exemplifies one of several species that need our help now, and the most important thing we can do is protect their habitat.”
photo credit: TurasPhoto