Four long-lost birds slated for official extinction

LIHU‘E — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has moved to declare four Kaua‘i forest birds extinct, just as naturalists announced the discovery of an indigenous fern also thought possibly lost forever.

The birds are among 23 plants and animals nationally, including nine from Hawai‘i, that are slated for removal from the endangered-species list due to lack of evidence indicating their survival. None of the listed Kaua‘i fliers have been credibly observed in decades.

“We had been holding out hope for a very long time that somebody might uncover them somewhere,” said Dr. Lisa “Cali” Crampton, project leader of the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project in Hanapepe.

“But as time wears on, it’s become more and more apparent that hope was vanishing before our eyes.”

The lost birds include the Kaua‘i ‘akialoa (Akialoa stejnegeri), last seen in the 1960s; the Kaua‘i nukupu‘u (Hemignathus hanapepe), last seen in 1899; the Kaua‘i ‘o‘o (Moho braccatus), last seen in 1987; and the kama‘o (Myadestes myadestinus), also witnessed for the last time in 1987.

All but the kama‘o — also known as the large Kaua‘i thrush — belonged to the honeycreeper family, which is notably susceptible to mosquito-borne diseases.

Such illnesses sounded the death knell for species already sent into decline by forests cleared for agriculture, invasive plants, destructive ungulates and predators like cats and rats, according to Crampton.

“The usual players were stacked up against these birds from the beginning,” she said. “And then. of course, in the 1800s and into the early 1900s, we introduced mosquitoes.”

Avian malaria, pox and climate change still threaten existent species, such as the ‘akikiki, on Kaua‘i and other Hawaiian islands. There are efforts to address the problem both locally and statewide, and Crampton sees light at the end of the tunnel.

“We’re much, much closer to landscape-level mosquito control than we were when I started this job a decade ago,” she said, referring to a naturally occurring bacteria researchers are using to render mosquito eggs inviable. “Within a year or two or three, we will have means to control these invasive mosquitoes on the landscape. Every day brings new tools.”

The ivory-billed woodpecker was perhaps the best-known species the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared extinct. The woodpecker went out stubbornly and with fanfare, making unconfirmed appearances in recent decades that ignited a frenzy of ultimately fruitless searches in the swamps of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

Others, such as the flat pigtoe, a freshwater mussel in the southeastern U.S., were identified in the wild only a few times and never seen again, meaning by the time they got a name they were fading from existence.

“When I see one of those really rare ones, it’s always in the back of my mind that I might be the last one to see this animal again,” said Anthony “Andy” Ford, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Tennessee who specializes in freshwater mussels.

The factors behind the disappearances vary — too much development, water pollution, logging, competition from invasive species, birds killed for feathers and animals captured by private collectors. In each case, humans were the ultimate cause.

Another thing they share: All 23 were thought to have at least a slim chance of survival when added to the endangered-species list beginning in the 1960s. Only 11 species previously have been removed due to extinction in the almost half-century since the Endangered Species Act was signed into law.

The announcement kicks off a 60-day comment period before the species status changes become final. Wildlife officials citing the extinctions also said they would resume criminal enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to punish companies responsible for preventable bird deaths. Prosecutions ceased for several years under President Donald Trump.

Around the globe, some 902 species have been documented as extinct. The actual number is thought to be much higher because some are never formally identified, and many scientists warn the earth is in an “extinction crisis” with flora and fauna now disappearing at 1,000 times the historical rate.

It’s possible one or more of the 23 species named Wednesday could reappear, several scientists said.

Meanwhile, those working to preserve vulnerable plant species have cause to celebrate. Plant Extinction Prevention Program field technicians recently discovered four critically endangered pendant kihi ferns (Adenophorus periens) on Kaua‘i, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources announced Thursday.

The fern, once also found on Moloka‘i and Hawai‘i Island, was relegated to Kaua‘i by 2015.

“By 2019, no plants had been observed during surveys on Kaua‘i, and the species was considered possibly extinct by PEPP,” a DLNR press release states.

Now, scientists are working to propagate the species in a Maui laboratory, using spores collected in the field.

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Scott Yunker, general assignment reporter, can be reached at 245-0437 or syunker@thegardenisland.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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