HONOLULU (CN) – Eighty-one bird species found only in Hawaii have become extinct since man arrived, and environmentalists say an 82nd – a guardian spirit for canoe makers – may die too unless the United States correctly classifies it as a distinct species.
The Oahu Elepaio, a member of the monarch flycatcher family, is a small, insect-eating bird weighing in at about 12 grams – less than ½ an ounce. It has a dark brown crown and back, white breast with light brown streaks and usually holds its long, tipped tail at an angle.
Native Hawaiian canoe makers viewed it as a guardian spirit that would tell them if a canoe was made of good wood or bad, by either pecking at it or landing on it and singing.
Listed as an endangered subspecies in 2000, the Oahu Elepaio population has been decimated by nonnative animal species, disease and loss of habitat. It occupies about 4 percent of its original range, with only about 1,200 birds in its 11,000 acres of remaining habitat in 2012, according to the Public Trust Conservancy.
The nonprofit sued the Secretary of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act on Tuesday, claiming they failed to update the bird’s scientific name after scientists community changed its classification.
“In 2010, the American Ornithologists’ Union changed the taxonomy of the Oahu Elepaio to recognize it as a distinct species – ‘Chasiempis ibidis.’ (Prior to 2010, it was recognized only as a subspecies, ‘Chasiempis sandwichensis ibidis‘),” according to the 5-page federal complaint.
The Conservancy wants to court to order the Fish and Wildlife Service “to update its present listing of the Oahu Elepaio bird as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act to reflect the reclassification.”
Co-plaintiff Kathleen Watson, a founder of the Conservancy, said it is critical for Fish & Wildlife to list the Oahu Elepaio properly to preserve it.
“The extinction of the Oahu Elepaio will be the extinction of a distinct species found nowhere else on earth,” she says in the complaint. “When it is gone, a distinct species will be gone forever.”
Watson’s attorney, Barton Marshall Watson of Honolulu, did not return a phone call or respond to an email.
The race to save rare Hawaiian birds is not limited to the Oahu Elepaio. Many species were wiped out by the arrival of Polynesians and then Anglos before they were even recorded. Their bones were discovered in lava tubes, according to the National Audubon Society.
Hawaii’s most endangered birds include the Kiwiku, also known as the Maui Parrotbill, only about 500 of which remain. Other endangered birds include the akikiki, which resembles a nuthatch; and the i’iwi, with a coat of blazing red feathers and long, downward curving bill for sipping nectar.
“Since humans arrived, 71 of 113 bird species found nowhere else have become extinct in Hawaii,” according to the American Bird Conservancy. “Thirty-three of Hawaii’s remaining 42 endemic birds are listed under the Endangered Species Act; ten of those have not been seen for decades and are likely extinct.”
It is extremely difficult to bring any species back from extinction, birds particularly, as they tend to be reclusive and difficult to trace. One successful campaign managed to save the Puerto Rican parrot, the only parrot species native to the island.
The multi-pronged recovery effort included habitat protection, providing nests for the birds, but above all, public education. Schoolchildren were taught that the bird was Puerto’s only parrot, and they educated their parents. Public interest was spurred and the bird and the campaign to save it became a matter of public pride.
The successful campaign is described in a chapter of the 1992 book, “New World Parrots in Crisis: Solutions From Conservation Biology,” edited by Steven Beissinger and Noel Snyder.
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