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Hawaii loses several bird species to extinction


We're going to do an unusual obituary today. This past week, 22 animals and one plant were recommended to be declared extinct and removed from the list of endangered species. That means that federal wildlife officials now believe none of them exist anymore anywhere on this planet. Hanna Mounce is the research and management coordinator for the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

HANNA MOUNCE: Thanks so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hanna, eight types of Hawaiian forest birds were on this list. That's a devastating loss.

MOUNCE: It is. We - I mean, Hawaii has been the epicenter for loss of global diversity for a long time. You know, it often gets referred to as the extinction capital of the world. But yet we had all of these species that have - some of which who have actually been gone for a long time that were still on the books, if you will. And removing these eight takes off a very large percentage of the forest birds that we have left.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell me a little bit about some of these birds?

MOUNCE: So we had one from the island of Molokai, the Molokai creeper, and then we had three that all made up mixed flocks of forest birds in the forest that I still work in. So we had the Maui 'akepa, which was a very small forest bird - yellow and green and orange in color. And there are thankfully 'akepa species still on Hawaii Island and Kauai Island. The next one was Maui nukupu'u, which was very unique with this long, decurved bill, and they were a yellow and green bird, kind of filled a little bit of a woodpecker niche in the forest, and they've also been gone for quite a long time now. And then the most interesting species on this list for me is a very recent extinction. So the po'ouli was last seen in 2004, when the last known individual actually died in captivity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you mentioned at the beginning of this that Hawaii is known as the extinction capital. What is happening there that is seeing so much pressure put on native species?

MOUNCE: So a lot of the species in Hawaii we lost very early due to deforestation and degradation of the habitat itself. What followed very quickly behind those landscape changes were invasive species. So we've had introduction of land mammals, which can depredate on all of our native - naive species that did not evolve with rats and mongooses and cats and all of these things that can eat them. And then the most current and most devastating introduction that we had was mosquitoes and avian malaria. So avian disease is still taking a huge toll on these birds and has pushed them into very small, high-elevation areas where they can survive, where they're not catching this disease being transmitted. But those small, high-elevation areas are disappearing as climate change allows the disease and the mosquitoes to move higher and higher up the mountains.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, this is - you know, comes at a time of rapid biodiversity loss worldwide. What can be done to help the remaining species survive?

MOUNCE: One good thing with the remaining species that we have is that we are aware of their quick decline. We are trying to reverse that declining trajectory, and we are trying to step in and implement recovery actions for these species. Unfortunately, with the forces of climate change and something like avian disease, the tools in order to save these species are not readily available. There is a very large effort in Hawaii right now with 13 different agencies, lots of different people trying to implement an incompatible insect technique to control mosquitoes at a landscape scale. And we're hoping that this would allow those mosquito populations to be suppressed and stop the spread of avian malaria into these higher-elevation areas where these critically endangered species are still surviving.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hanna, as someone who has, you know, dedicated their work to trying to help species survive, do you have any last words for the birds that were declared extinct and what their loss means to you?

MOUNCE: These birds were a part of a suite of forest birds that is dwindling down to the last several species. It's - the forests are getting silent. And, you know, there's few things on hand that we can do to reverse the trajectory of the remaining forest birds that we have left. But we do - we do remain hopeful. And there are lots of people working on this. And we have very few years in which we can act. But we do hope that we are not adding additional Maui birds to this list in the future.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Hanna Mounce. She is the research and management coordinator for the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project. Thank you very much, and I'm so sorry.

MOUNCE: Thank you so much for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.