Protection proposed for ‘i’iwi

KOKEE — Fewer than 2,500 ‘i’iwi, or scarlet honeycreepers are left in the world and the birds might be receiving new federal protections.

Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list the ‘i’iwi, which is a nectar-eating bird that resembles a red and black hummingbird with a curved beak, as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The bird is currently listed with the state as endangered on Lanai, Oahu, and Molokai.

But, federally listing the species as threatened could be helpful for conservation efforts.

“I think that it (listing the species) would definitely raise awareness for the species and maybe trigger a little more effort,” said John Vetter, forest bird recovery coordinator for Hawaii’s department of land and natural resources. “It’s a difficult issue to tackle. We need to address the disease factor and mosquitoes.”

Kauai is one of the few places left where people can hear the complex songs of the i’iwi in the wild. The birds, endemic to Hawaii, are disappearing from the other islands.

The last population of them disappeared from Oahu and Molokai in the 1990s and Vetter said he doesn’t remember the last time they were seen on Lanai. The rapid ‘ohi’a death that’s sweeping the Big Island is impacting the population on the island because the birds feed off the nectar in the flowers.

“They rely on ‘ohi’a a bit, so losing a large amount of ‘ohi’a is a big concern,” Vetter said. “Habitat is a big issue.”

On Maui and Kauai, larger populations of ‘i’iwi have survived because the elevation on both of those islands is high enough to keep vector spread illnesses at bay, but climate change is playing a role in habitat evolution for the ‘i’iwi.

As the world warms, it’s taking the mosquito line higher up the mountain, bringing malaria —one of the main threats to the bird species — with them.

“‘I’iwi is particularly susceptible to avian disease,” Vetter said. “Right now mosquitoes and the malaria are limited elevationally, and as temperature warms, the line gets higher and higher and the population becomes more susceptible.”

About 95 percent of ‘i’iwi bird deaths are from disease and Vetter said even one infected mosquito bite can prove fatal for the little birds.

“The population has been declining ever since mosquitoes arrived on Hawaii in the 1800’s and malaria came in the 1900’s ,” Vetter said. “Since then it’s been particularly worrisome watching the mosquito line get higher and higher and the population get smaller and smaller.”

Efforts to conserve the species have mostly been targeted at maintaining their habitat by preserving and conserving native forests and eliminating invasive predators like rats.

“We have not bred them in captivity as of yet and there are really no targeted conservation measures for this species,” Vetter said. “There’s things done that benefit the species in general, but there hasn’t been much targeted effort on this species in particular.”

USFWS is accepting public comment on the idea of listing the ‘i’iwi as threatened for the next 60 days, until mid-November.

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