Molokai’s Kākāwahie: A Lost Species
By Catherine Cluett Pactol
Blazing orange feathers flash among ‘ohia foliage of Molokai’s lower forests. The bird’s “chip chip chip” call is punctuated with its beak tapping on branches looking for insects, which it also finds deep within liko lehua, or buds.
This is the kākāwahie, or Molokai creeper, an endemic bird found only on Molokai. But it isn’t a sight or sound we can ever experience. The kākāwahie hasn’t been seen since 1963, and it’s about to be declared extinct.
“It has been such a long time since the kākāwahie graced the lowland forests of Molokai that perhaps no one in living memory can say what the bird looked like, or recall its song,” said Sam Gon, a scientist and cultural practitioner at The Nature Conservancy Hawaii. “Yet we know from various sources that this bird, like the other so-called ‘Hawaiian creepers’ were common in our forests and worked their way methodically around the trunks of trees (creeping along), searching the bark for insects to eat.”
The kākāwahie has been listed as a federally endangered species since 1970. Its disappearance isn’t new, but in September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife announced it to be on a list of 22 other species proposed for removal from the Endangered Species Act – a move that would label it officially extinct.
“This designation of this bird being labeled extinct is a reflection of human impact on our environment,” said Molokai’s Penny Martin, a longtime educator and environmental advocate. “It’s a sad thing and no one wants to admit it’s our fault, but it is.”
Only three native forest bird species are left living on Molokai today. That’s a trend seen across the state — seven of the other species on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s extinction list are also native Hawaii birds, and many more are surviving in critically low numbers. This is largely because of habitat loss and introduced diseases, particularly parasites deadly to native bird species that are carried by mosquitoes. The introduction of invasive species is also a significant factor in both decreased habitat and competition for resources, according to biologists.
Disappearance from Molokai
Division of Fish and Game Warden Noah Pekelo, Jr. was the last person to report seeing the kākāwahie in 1963 in the Kamakou region. Since then, starting in 1978, extensive forest bird surveys of Molokai are completed every 10 years, and even on the first survey, no kākāwahie were found, said Fern Duvall, a wildlife biologist in Hawaii specializing in native birds.
“It’s very sad. It’s just irreplaceable,” said Duvall. “Nobody can go out like Pekelo did and see this brilliant bird moving around in the trees. You can’t hear its sounds, and know what is the important role that bird was doing on Molokai — nobody studied it, we’ll never know. It’s really tragic.”
Its cultural value on Molokai also doesn’t seem to be well-recorded. Historically, skilled bird catchers known as kia manu would gather the feathers of brightly-colored birds for Hawaiian feather work – cloaks, helmets and lei usually worn by ali’i. Though the scarlet feathers of i’iwi and ‘apapane were commonly used for feather work, Gon said he hasn’t heard of the bright plumage of the kākāwahie being sought for that purpose. However, Duvall pointed out that because the kākāwahie was only found on Molokai, it might just not have been documented. Because kia manu had such an intimate understanding of birds’ habits, Duvall suggested that relatives of the island’s kia manu might come forward to share any knowledge passed down to them about the kākāwahie.
Meet the Kākāwahie
A diminutive five inches in length, males had bright reddish or orange feathers, and females boasted rust-colored plumage. The birds thrived in lower elevation forests. Even in Kalae, the kākāwahie was apparently a common sight, based on a collection of native bird skins, including at least half a dozen kākāwahie, that had been captured in Kalae in the early 1900s, according to Duvall.
The kākāwahie preferred the under-branches rather than higher tree canopies, so likely would have been seen frequently, said Gon. A native bird study by University of Hawaii Hilo called it a “curious and active bird.”
The kākāwahie was named for the way it pecked at branches and its “chip” call: “kākā” means to hit or chop and “wahie” is wood suitable for building fire, according to Gon.
“They looked for insects in closed buds of lehua trees, they’re the only bird that did that,” said Duvall of the kākāwahie. “Now you’ll often find a whole set of insects feed on the liko. There’s a lot of insect damage. Nobody else has figured out that there’s insects in the liko, a special feeding strategy that the bird used…. So it had a particular role in the Molokai [ecosystem], and that’s gone.”
Today, only two of Molokai’s native forest bird species can still be readily found – the ‘amakihi and ‘apapane — and those are ever-decreasing. Duvall said the i’iwi are “very rare” on Molokai, only surviving in certain areas of Kamakou. Fewer than 10 birds are alive on the island, according to the latest records.
Despite that alarmingly low number, Duvall said “Molokai can perhaps still save the i’iwi” by controlling the mosquito population.
Another bird that’s completely disappeared from the Molokai forests is the kiwikiu, a rare honeycreeper with a parrot-like bill. Fewer than 150 of them are still alive on Maui, according to recent surveys. The ‘akohekohe, too, used to reside on Molokai, but can now only be found in a very limited area above 5,000 feet elevation on Haleakala. The oloma`o has not been observed on Molokai since 1988.
“While this species was only known from Molokai, [the kākāwahie’s] range was nonetheless actually quite wide based on the historic records, and because of that, the fact that it is finally considered extinct should raise concern for what is the likely cause of its disappearance: mosquito-borne diseases and habitat loss, meaning that much of those native forests and shrublands in which it once lived were likely lost to fire and incursion of weeds and hooved mammals like cows, goats, pigs and deer over the last couple of centuries,” said Russell Kallstrom, acting lead for The Nature Conservancy Molokai. “Molokai only has 13 percent of the native forest it once had, which helps collect and provide almost all our drinking water as well, so it is important to protect what we have left, not just for these species, but realizing how much we, like the kākāwahie rely on these special places and all they do for us, as does the complex web of creatures that reside in them, knowing no other home.”
Gon explained that after the introduction of cattle and goats and their uncontrolled population increase in the early 1800s, the lowland forests on Molokai were destroyed. Only a small portion of forested habitat remained.
“Also in the 1800s, mosquitoes, and both bird malaria and bird pox were introduced through introductions of foreign songbirds,” Gon continued. “The introduced songbirds were resistant to the diseases, but, like Native Hawaiians were susceptible to foreign diseases, our native birds were very susceptible to the introduced bird diseases, and wherever there were mosquitoes, the native birds disappeared, killed by disease. Over the years, all of the rarer birds succumbed, leaving only ʻamakihi and ʻapapane today.”
What We Can Do
Mosquitoes can carry and spread avian malaria, a disease deadly to many native forest birds – one bite from an infected mosquito can kill them. A multi-agency Hawaii initiative called “Birds, Not Mosquitoes” is seeking a last-ditch effort to save species like the i’iwi and kiwikiu by promoting the use of a common, naturally-occurring bacteria as a “mosquito birth control” of sorts, to suppress mosquito populations. Only male mosquitoes, which don’t bite birds or people and don’t transmit diseases, would be released. These male mosquitoes would mate with wild female mosquitoes, but their eggs would not hatch, creating a safe, targeted solution to drastically reduce mosquito populations, scientists say.
Among the honeycreeper family of birds – of which the kākāwahie, i’iwi and kiwikui are all a part — there were historically more than 50 different species in Hawaii. Today, just 17 species exist today, and many in critical numbers.
“It’s racing the clock to save these birds,” Duvall said.
Another way we can help preserve these species is by planting native trees and plants, said Duvall. Replacing what used to be here will ensure the birds have food at lower elevations if mosquitoes can be controlled.
Martin said education is also key.
“In the schools, now we’re paying more attention to [how ecosystems work] and hopefully creating better stewards,” she said. “A lot of times, our actions aren’t intentional, just done out of not knowing.”
She gave the example of Aunty inadvertently carrying Little Fire Ants home in gifts from Hawaii Island. The same goes for historic, invasive introductions.
“Surely, if they knew the mosquitoes or pigs would cause this bird to be extinct one day, they would have done things differently,” Martin said. “They don’t want to know that they’re responsible for a bird to never be seen again on this planet.”
That’s why being educated about the choices we make today are so important, she added.
“[You might say,] ‘Who cares? It’s just one bird,’ Martin continued. “But it’s all part of the ecosystem — it’s like taking spokes out of the wheel. Every time we lose something in that ecosystem, it has a role and affects how things run.”
Though we’ll never hear the kākāwahie’s chipping, there might still be time to help our grandchildren see the i’iwi’s scarlet feathers flutter in Molokai’s forests.