Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Palila – One of the Rarest Birds in the World

Perhaps the most finch-like survivor of the holocaust that has wiped out most of Hawaii's native avifauna (which began around 800 A.D. when the first Polynesians arrived) is the Palila. It's frustrating to many that we don't have real English names for most of the native Hawaiian birds, but at least this one is easily pronounceable. (We're not forced to call endemic Japanese birds by their Japanese names after all, so....)

In any event, we were fantastically lucky to spot one within 10 minutes of arriving at the preserve in the distinctive, semi-dry Mamane-Naio woodland this bird needs. As we were leaving, a visiting birder from Portland arrived for his fourth attempt to find the bird on his own. Rob Pacheco spotted one within the minute and we got one in the scope for him. Sometimes it does pay to hire a professional. I managed just a couple poor digiscoped images.

In the past 20 years the population of this bird has gone from about 4000 to 1000, despite protection. But it seems that a lot more could be done, with this little preserve surrounded by cattle country. Has any pointed out that there is simply no compelling need to raise even a single cow in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Yet there are hundreds and thousands of them – and probably even more feral goats, sheep, etc. The annual resources needed to give all these birds a huge help would be a drop in the bucket compared to what we spend on our military each day. Think about it.


  1. I'm jealous. I spent a couple of hours looking for them a few years back, but came up empty. They're declining precipitously and the State of Hawaii is doing precious little about it. It's a sad and frustrating situation.

  2. The population has a history of bouncing around between 1000-6000, before the recent sustained decline, and it's difficult to predict where it's going from here except that it probably isn't getting significantly larger anytime soon. A single event such as fire, disease, parasites, insects or hurricane could push them over the edge for good. There are many factors and human disturbances that have been involved in degrading the habitat over the decades, and I don't know if anyone even knows if the tiny remaining habitat can support a large enough population for the species to be viable long-term. The small remnant habitat is unfortunately a very desirable peice of wilderness (and pasture) that is heavily contested by different groups with different visions of the proper management, purpose and use of the mountain. It is plagued by feral livestock (which some term game/"wildlife"), cats, rats, drought cycles, invasive plants, invasive insects, fire, bulldozing, recreational vehicles, vandalism, and of course overall neglect. Every few years there's another threat to worry about. Away from the more heavily travelled roads much of the habitat is in terrible condition from concentrated browsing and soil disturbance.