Native birds protect forests, watersheds and us

When someone relinquished a bull python snake recently under the state Department of Agriculture’s amnesty program, it again highlighted how species like snakes can further imperil Hawaii’s already critically endangered forest and seabirds. The populations of several species are so low, that experts working in the field fear they could go extinct within the next 5 to 10 years. They’d join a sobering list of 23 endemic Hawaii birds that have gone extinct, gone forever, in the last 200 years or so.

Look no further than Guam, where native bird populations have been virtually wiped out by snakes. The arrival of a reptile like the Brown Tree Snake would have disastrous impacts on our already beleaguered bird populations. This is why the recently revealed Hawaii Interagency Bio-Security Plan is so critical in tying together and bolstering the state’s efforts to prevent further introduction of alien species and to control and eliminate the hundreds of plant and animal species already here that continue to pose extreme threats to native populations.

Aloud and in private conversations, some have wondered why are forest and seabirds important and why, such extraordinary efforts to try and prevent their extinction? Large numbers of breeding montane seabirds helped shape the forests and watersheds across our islands. They distribute marine nutrients (in the form of guano) into the mountains, which in turn helps our native trees and plants to grow. The forests are the canopies that collect rain water that filters into underground aquifers. This is where we get our freshwater drinking supplies. As forested acreage disappears and bird populations drop there’ll be less water to support life on our very remote islands.

Forest birds play an equally important role in the health of Hawaii’s native forests. They truly are “the canaries in the coal mine,” in that they provide early indicators or warning signs about overall forest and watershed conditions. They disperse the seeds of native plants which helps the propagation of new growth, allowing endemic plants to choke out invasive species. Between loss of native habitat, invasive predators like rats, feral cats, mongoose and pigs, along with threats from avian diseases, the populations of many forest bird species continue in severe decline.

A broad and diverse collaboration of federal, state and non-profit organizations and agencies have worked for decades to try and reserve the downward population trends of threatened and endangered native birds. Research into the causes of these declines is one component. Work in the field to identify the reasons for habitat loss, the causes of disease spread, and on protecting native forests from the incursion of alien predators is another component.

Recently, partners in The Alala Project released the first captive population of Hawaii’s native crow into a Natural Area Reserve on Hawaii Island. This is but one chapter in the long history of trying to reintroduce a bird, revered for centuries by Native Hawaiians, back into its natural habitat.

Regrettably some of the first birds released didn’t survive. Unfortunately, such are the pitfalls associated with the reintroduction of captive-raised animals into the wild. However, no one is giving up. They continue to research, refine, and refresh approaches toward ensuring future generations, might one day hear the distinctive call of this highly intelligent bird out in our native forests.

We’re all connected, including the tiniest of birds that inhabit our forests or those that fly out to sea to bring nutrients back to land to replenish it. Please care about Hawaii’s native birds.


Suzanne Case is the chair of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.


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