A beautiful seed-eating songbird native to the "Big Island" of Hawaii is so endangered that it's lost nearly three-quarters of its population in just seven years, according to a new survey. Only 1,200 palilas remain, according to the new U.S. Geological Survey and Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources report.
Why? It's losing the māmane and naio forest habitat in which it lives, and the seeds it eats, while being hunted by feral cats it didn't evolve to evade. What's happening to its habitat? Other species not native to Hawaii namely mouflon, an Asian sheep; mouflon-sheep hybrids; and goats which browse so much of the native trees that the birds can't find enough seeds, flowers, leaves and berries to sustain themselves. A persistent drought hasn't helped.
The rescue operation that conservation groups and government agencies have devised is expensive: Build a six-feet-tall, 59-mile-long fence around the bird's remaining critical habitat on Mauna Kea, the volcano that is the island. The cost: $900,000 federal taxpayer dollars last year, and another $1.5 million this year.
Why bother with such a big expense for such a little bird, no matter how beautiful? Already 71 of the Hawaiian islands' 113 native bird species have gone extinct. Ten other species haven't been seen for 40 years, and could well be extinct today. The palila is one of 21 additional Hawaiian birds considered threatened or endangered. (Yes, that leaves 11 native Hawaiian birds that are in good shape.) Broadly, the threats to the palila are common to those of other birds in the Hawaiian islands, and to species on islands around the world: Having evolved to survive the conditions on an isolated island, native species often can't compete with new species introduced by global trade and travel.
That's why The Daily Green named bird watching in the Hawaiian islands one of 10 Endangered Vacations for 2010.
"These latest figures tell us that it is imperative that we act quickly to protect this bird now," said George Wallace, the American Bird Conservancy's vice president for oceans and islands. "We know what needs to be done to protect this species, and every day that goes by without those actions being implemented brings it one step closer to extinction."
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