The ʻIʻiwi, a magnificently feathered bird endemic and specialized to its environment, is rapidly disappearing from Hawaii’s forests.
In late March, I spent a week working with the organization Ocean Matters in Oahu, Hawaii. I dedicated my time to studying the reefs and overall health of Kāneʻohe Bay. Yet, it was the limited service work we did higher in the valley that truly caught my eye. The unique environment excited me. As an avid birdwatcher, before any trip away from home, I take the time to study and learn the names of the local birds. When considering Hawaiian species, it is often the honeycreepers that stand out most, and for me it was no different. From the olive colored Amakihi to the rosy Apapane, honeycreepers are the jewels of Hawaiian forests, yet they are unfortunately becoming scarce. Of all the resplendent honeycreepers, the one that most beckoned for my attention was the ʻIʻiwi, also known as the scarlet honeycreeper. With its elaborate beak and gorgeous coloration, the ʻIʻiwi is truly a sight to behold as it probes its way through the flowers. The ʻIʻiwi averages a total body length of 6 inches and is easily identified by its brilliant plumage and long decurved bill. As immature individuals, the ʻIʻiwi’s feathers are actually a light green, similar to the Amakihi, however as they age, they adopt a new, flashier molt.
In my research it has been difficult, if not impossible, to find information on the original discovery of the ʻIʻiwi. However, it is probable that it was first sighted shortly after the migrant Polynesians arrived in Hawaii in about 400 A.D. Beyond its discovery, the ʻIʻiwi holds an important historical place in Hawaiian culture. When the ʻIʻiwi were plentiful, the Polynesians made magnificent feathered capes, using up to 100,000 feathers of the now rare bird. These capes, called ʻAhu ʻula, were a status symbol reserved for the Hawaiian nobility.
I interviewed numerous Hawaiian natives while spending time in Kāneʻohe Bay. One man I asked was excited about my interest in birds; however, when I asked him about his experiences with the ʻIʻiwi, he was disappointed to inform me that he had yet to see it. When I told him about my intent to write this article, he insisted that I write about the dire effects of climate change on this species, something that I touch on later. Another native elder that I had the incredible luck to meet gave me a similar sad response. Not once in her 70- some years on Oahu has she ever sighted the bird. I asked a few other island natives and even a couple of research scientists working with the HIMB and they all had the same answer. The ʻIʻiwi is an incredible avian, and it’s disheartening to witness this important Hawaiian pollinator melt away from memory.
Although not nearly as dire as the situation of the Vaquita (the cetacean of my previous article), the ʻIʻiwi is on the path to extinction. Currently listed by IUCN as “Vulnerable”, the future of this species depends entirely on the actions of humans. There have been three major actions by people that have and continue to lead towards the decline of this species. Firstly, the introduction of the mongoose to the islands in 1888. These small mammals were intended to decimate invasive rats, but they also slaughtered native birds, greedily consuming chicks and eggs. The second major human offense has been deforestation of Hawaiian forests. Being a pollinator, the ʻIʻiwi relies on the nectar of Hawaiian lobelioids (mostly the ōhia lehua) for the vast majority of its food source. As humans make room for expansion, much of the ʻIʻiwi’s food disappears. The final, most devastating effect humans have had has been the acceleration of climate change. ʻIʻiwi are extremely susceptible to avian malaria. According to the American Bird Conservancy, “90 percent of ʻIʻiwi bitten by a single malaria-infected mosquito die from the disease”. As temperatures rise, mosquito populations make their way further and further up Hawaii’s mountains. Evidence for this is shown in the current population distribution of the species. Closely observing the maps, it seems that the final stronghold of these birds hides in the high mountains of the Big Island. Connecting back to my earlier statement, the future of this species lies in our hands. If we cannot stop climate change or set up a breeding population similar to the successful California Condor Recovery Program, the species will continue to decline. The outlook for the ʻIʻiwi certainly is not strong, however, with new technology and advancements in climate science, survival is certainly a possibility.
Working from a broader classification to a more specific one, the I’iwi is classified as follows:
- Kingdom: Animalia animals
- Phylum: Chordata chordates
- Subphylum: Vertebrata vertebrates
- Class: Aves birds
- Order: Passeriformes perching birds
- Family: Fringillidae finches
- Genus: Vestiaria ‘i’iwis
- Species: Vestiaria coccinea (ʻIʻiwi)
- General Information: https://www.audubon.org/news/the-iiwi-besieged-hawaiian-forest-bird-now-listed-threatened
- Brief Biometric: https://www.britannica.com/animal/iiwi
- Classification: https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Vestiaria_coccinea/classification/
Those of you interested in the groups with whom I worked with the links to their respective websites are below.
I also have a link to a few audio clips of the ʻIʻiwi for those of you seeking more: