Bird Feeding 2015 04 23
Image: Tammy Spratt

Cranium-crushing weapons and kidnappings are tactics more likely to be employed by mobsters than conservationists, but they're proving crucial in the race to save two species of extremely endangered Hawaiian songbirds found only on the island of Kauai.

The kidnappings are necessary to start what will become the very first captive-breeding programme for these beleaguered birds, both of which are species of Hawaiian honeycreepers. The cranium-crushing weapons, on the other hand, are reserved for the invasive rats ravaging the honeycreepers. 

One is a drab little bird known as the Kauai creeper (or akikiki). According to Lisa “Cali” Crampton, project leader of the Kauai Forest Birds Recovery Project, “creeper” is an apt name: “It likes to work its way up and down the trunk and main branches of a tree, in the moss and bark looking for grubs,” she explains. Scientists know little about the bird, but one thing they do know is that it is critically endangered, with fewer than 500 left. 

Thanks to a conservation collaboration aimed at protecting these declining island birds, that number is now up by seven, and counting. For the first time, seven Akikiki chicks have hatched in captivity after their eggs were, well, kidnapped from several wild nests. These feathery little bundles of joy are the result of a partnership between the Kauai Forest Birds Recovery Project, State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, United States Fish and Wildlife Service and San Diego Zoo Global.

The partners hope to establish a captive-breeding programme for the akikiki and another endangered honeycreeper, a chartreuse-coloured, high-flying species called the Kauai 'akepa, or akekee. Akekee uses its distinctly cross-tipped beak like pliers to wrench open the leaf and flower buds of tall trees in search of bugs. Three Akekee chicks have hatched so far, but their population numbers remain under a thousand.

“The immediate goal is preventing extinction,” Crampton says.

Both bird species are threatened by familiar foes of native islanders: introduced diseases (namely, avian malaria), invasive rats and disappearing habitat. That is why Crampton's team scrambles across the steep-ridged Alakai Plateau (which boasts the topography of “a Ruffles potato chip”) through thick, wet forest to find these elusive birds and their tree-top nests, a hunt that can take up to a week. Once a nest with eggs is confirmed, another mission launches in the sky: a ladder is delivered to the location by helicopter, and then hauled to the nest and suspended in the canopy. This allows one person to climb up and pluck a couple of tiny eggs out of the nest to bring back to the relative safety of captivity.

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Despite all these efforts, a captive breeding programme “alone will not lead to the recovery of the species,” cautions biologist Eric VanderWerf of the independent research organisation Pacific Rim Conservation. Addressing the threats awaiting these birds in the wild is essential to reversing their slide toward extinction. 

That's a lesson already learned from a past captive breeding and release programme for another endangered Kauai songbird, the small Kauai thrush (or puaiohi). VanderWerf and Crampton's 2014 evaluation of this programme yielded disappointing results for released birds.

The Kauai Forest Birds Recovery Project and its partners are taking pains to prevent a repeat. For example, the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife is erecting fences to keep destructive feral pigs and goats out of songbird habitat. To stymie the rise of avian malaria, they're exploring technologies for controlling disease-carrying mosquitoes. And they've also convinced dozens of people to help buy the cranium-crushing weapons needed to dispatch the invasive rats preying on songbirds, their eggs and native forest.

In early 2015, the Kauai Forest Birds Recovery Project raised more than $27,000 through their “Birds Not Rats” crowdfunding campaign. With that money, they bought and deployed 100 Goodnature rat traps, which humanely (but rather terrifyingly) pop a CO2-powered piston into the head of rats nosing up to its scented setup. An earlier test of these traps, each capable of killing 22 rats before needing maintenance, was promising, and according to VanderWerf, the current traps “will be in the core of the species’ ranges and will help to protect nests of several nesting pairs.”

Perks for funders include a t-shirt featuring rat skulls and one of the endangered honeycreepers, as well as the opportunity to sponsor your “own” trap, adorned with your name or business logo. Trap sponsors range from a generous veterinarian in California to a big-hearted seven-year-old on Oahu who asked her grandmother to fund one as her Christmas present – and then challenged her class to fundraise another $300 and sponsor their own rat trap. “We were blown away ... by the support we got for the campaign,” Crampton says.

While the odds stacked against the honeycreepers are high (and now include climate change) every effort to save these birds has huge potential. As VanderWerf says, “At this point, every bird matters.”