How Maui’s Wildfires Threatened Endangered Birds

Conservationists battled back flames to prevent them from reaching roughly 40 ‘akikiki in captivity

Small gray bird
The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is trying to keep ‘akikiki from going extinct. Eric J. Franke for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Once, the rainforests of Kauai were filled with ‘akikiki—small, unassuming songbirds with gray feathers. But when humans arrived on the Hawaiian islands, they brought with them mosquitoes carrying avian malaria. With no immunity to the disease, ‘akikiki and other native songbirds began to die off. The species’ population crashed in the early 2000s, and today, the situation is so dire that scientists estimate just five ‘akikiki exist in the wild in Kauai.

Now, on a nearby island, the Maui Bird Conservation Center is fighting to keep the species alive by housing roughly 40 ‘akikiki and encouraging them to reproduce in captivity. The facility also hosts some 40 ‘alalā, or Hawaiian crow, which have gone extinct in the wild.

But earlier this month, conservationists faced an unexpected challenge to the birds’ survival: wildfire. As fast-moving blazes erupted across Maui earlier this month, the center’s live-in staffer and a neighbor battled back approaching flames to protect the facility and its valued birds.

Jennifer Pribble, a senior research coordinator who oversees operations at the conservation center, was asleep in a home on the property when a power line went down nearby, and she awoke to the sound of her generator turning on, reports the New York Times’ Catrin Einhorn. Since high winds are fairly common in the area, she simply went back to sleep.

A few hours later, a tree branch fell on the home’s roof, and Pribble awoke again. She stepped outside to check what had happened and found the air filled with smoke. Then, she noticed the flames licking the edge of the center’s 46-acre property and called 911.

Throughout the early morning hours of August 8, she kept a close eye on the fire, and as it reached the center’s grounds, she and a neighbor sprang into action, grabbing fire extinguishers and a garden hose to try to dampen the flames, reports the Times.

They kept the blaze at bay until firefighters arrived and took over. The wildfire and the strong winds damaged one of the center’s bird barns and poked holes in the netting used to protect the creatures from mosquitoes. But the 80 resident birds made it out unscathed.

Over the course of the next few days, wildfires across Maui led to utter destruction. At least 115 people are dead because of the blazes, and more than 1,000 remain missing. The historic, coastal town of Lahaina was decimated.

Amid the devastation, the story of the rescued ‘akikiki is a small bright spot—though it also highlights the risk of wildfire to threatened species.

The Maui Bird Conservation Center is one of two related facilities run by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance—the other is the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, located on Hawaii Island. In addition to the birds kept on Maui, the wildlife alliance keeps additional ‘akikiki and ‘alalā at the Big Island facility as a bit of insurance plan. If disaster strikes one or the other, some birds will survive.

But the conservationists hadn’t expected wildfire to be one such disaster—instead, they’ve been primarily focused on hurricanes and volcanic eruptions. After the recent blaze, the captive ‘akikiki will live to see another day, but the birds—and their caretakers—still have a long road ahead of them.

For one, the risk of fire remains high. Climate change appears to be reducing the amount of rain that falls on Maui, more than a third of which is in a moderate or severe drought right now, as Christopher Flavelle and Manuela Andreoni report for the New York Times. Wildfires in Hawaii have been happening more often, and they’re getting more intense, per Nature’s Emma Marris. In addition, invasive grasses “transformed the island into a giant tinderbox,” as Shi En Kim writes for Smithsonian magazine.

More broadly, rising temperatures are allowing mosquitoes, and the avian malaria they may carry, to expand their range. The blood-sucking creatures have established a stronghold not just in low-lying areas, but also at higher elevations. That habitat expansion has driven many of Hawaii’s songbirds to the brink of extinction.

Wildlife officials have an ambitious plan for dealing with the insects, but it’s not without controversy. They want to breed male mosquitoes that carry a type of bacteria called Wolbachia, then release them into the wild. Wolbachia cannot make humans or pets sick, but mosquitoes with the bacteria will have a very difficult time producing viable eggs with females. In turn, this should lead to an eventual reduction in the mosquito population in Hawaii.

Detractors of the project—which has been dubbed “Birds, Not Mosquitoes”—argue the efforts could have unintended consequences that might further disrupt Hawaii’s ecosystem.

For now, the fate of the ‘akikiki and other endangered Hawaiian species hangs in the balance. But even if the mosquito control plan moves forward, these tiny birds may have a slim chance of recovering outside of captivity. As Dino Grandoni writes for the Washington Post, “even the most optimistic bird researchers are certain [the ‘akikiki] only has months left to live in the wild.”

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