Warming Climate Is Quieting Kauai's Colorful Forest Birds | KUOW News and Information

Warming Climate Is Quieting Kauai's Colorful Forest Birds

Jul 24, 2017
Originally published on July 26, 2017 4:58 am

In Hawaii's Kauai island, the native forest birds are in peril. Once considered a paradise for the colorful songbirds, the island has lost more than half of those native species.

What's happening on Kauai could be an early warning for the other Hawaiian islands.

Native Hawaiian songs tell stories of the islands, including one that was inspired by the last mating call of a now extinct bird, the Kauai O'o.

"We still sing it with hope in our hearts," says Sabra Kauka, a Native Hawaiian who is a revered teacher of the island's culture.

"Our seabirds, our mountain birds they are just indicators of the health of the earth," she says.

On the west side of Kauai, the Alaka'i Forest has provided a home to the islands native forest birds for millennia. It's a different picture here than the beaches and palm trees that grace most Hawaiian postcards. Trails cut through a misty bog of moss covered trees and dark green ferns. It is cool, and disturbingly quiet.

On a recent walk through the forest, Lisa Crampton strained to hear the sound of a honeycreeper way off in the distance.

She's coordinator of the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project and says not that long ago, maybe a few decades, there were so many birds here.

"We wouldn't be able to have a conversation ... It was a much, much noisier forest," she says. But in the last 10-15 years, "many of our species are in 70 to 90 percent declines — that's how fast the populations are collapsing."

Loss of native habitat and the introduction of invasive species like rats, wild pigs and feral cats have contributed to the birds' decline. But, Crampton says, mosquito-borne avian diseases from the island's warming temperatures pose the biggest threat.

"These mountains that we are in have provided a cold high elevation refuge for the birds," Crampton says, "but as the planet warms that refuge is getting shrunk down."

Shrinking now and could be completely gone within a decade, Crampton says. Conservation efforts including rat control, captive breeding and habitat restoration are underway.

Of the eight forest bird species on the island, three are listed as endangered. Among them is the puaiohi. The small gray and brown bird with pink feet now numbers less than 500. It feeds on the fruits of native plants and plays a vital role in seed dispersal.

"If the puaiohi go, then what is going to disperse the fruits and seeds to help this forest re-generate these beautiful fruiting plants that are so much a part of the Hawaiian forest?" she asks.

There is one bird that's doing slightly better. Back in the forest, Crampton uses her best elepaio bird call to see if she can find one.

"They are often very curious," she says.

After an hour or so searching for the elusive cinnamon and gray bird, we find the elepaio.

"I told you it would come in to look at us," Crampton says.

It was a mother bird and her young softly tweeting.

A quiet song helping to tell the story of this troubled forest.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Hawaii, on the island of Kauai, the native forest birds are in danger. The island has lost more than half of those native species, and it could be an early warning for the other Hawaiian Islands. Gloria Hillard reports.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: Native Hawaiian songs tell stories of the islands.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Hawaiian).

HILLARD: This one was inspired by the last mating call of a now extinct bird, the Kaua'i 'o'o.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Hawaiian).

SABRA KAUKA: And, you know, we still sing it with hope in our hearts.

HILLARD: Sabra Kauka is one of the singers.

KAUKA: But in truth, there - our birds - our native birds are in very steep decline.

HILLARD: Kauka, a native Hawaiian, is also a revered teacher of the island's culture.

KAUKA: Our seabirds, our mountain birds, they are just indicators of the health of the Earth.

HILLARD: On the west side of Kauai, the Alakai forest has provided a home to the island's native forest birds for millennia. It's a different picture here than the beaches and palm trees that graced most Hawaiian postcards. Trails cut through a misty bog of moss-covered trees and dark green ferns. It is cool and disturbingly quiet.

LISA CRAMPTON: I felt like I heard one of the honeycreepers way off in the distance. And I'm trying to see if I hear it again.

HILLARD: Dr. Lisa Crampton is coordinator of the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project. She says not that long ago, maybe a few decades, there were so many birds here...

CRAMPTON: We wouldn't be able to have a conversation. It was a much, much nosier forest. And in the last 10 to 15 years alone, many of our species are in 70 and 90 percent declines. They've lost - that's how fast their populations are collapsing.

HILLARD: Loss of native habitat and the introduction of invasive species like rats, wild pigs and feral cats have contributed to the birds' decline. But Crampton says mosquito-borne avian diseases from the island's warming temperatures pose the biggest threat.

CRAMPTON: These mountains that we're in right now have provided a cold - a high-elevation refuge for the birds. But as the planet warms, that refuge is getting shrunk down.

HILLARD: And could be completely gone, Crampton says, within a decade. Conservation efforts including rat control, captive breeding and habitat restoration are underway. Of the eight forest bird species on the island, three are listed as endangered. Among them is the puaiohi. The small gray and brown bird with pink feet numbers less than 500. It feeds on the fruits of native plants and plays a vital role in seed dispersal.

CRAMPTON: At least we have the puaiohi. But that's it. The puaiohi goes, and then what is going to disperse the fruits and the seeds and help this forest regenerate all these beautiful fruiting plants that are so much a part of the Hawaiian forest?

HILLARD: One bird is doing slightly better.

CRAMPTON: That sounded like an 'elepaio. Let's see if we can see it.

HILLARD: Crampton uses her best 'elepaio bird call.

CRAMPTON: (Imitating bird call). They're often very curious.

HILLARD: After an hour or so searching for the elusive cinnamon and gray bird...

CRAMPTON: There's the 'elepaio. I told you it would come in to look at us.

HILLARD: It was a mother bird and her young.

(SOUNDBITE OF 'ELEPAIO CHIRPING)

HILLARD: A quiet song helping to tell the story of this troubled forest. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard on the island of Kauai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.