Restoring Palila on the Big Island
Wildlife scientists recently moved about fifty Hawaiian honeycreepers, a species named palila, from their enclave on the west slope of Mauna Kea to what they hoped would be suitable habitat nearby. However, the birds were having none of it; in the following months they all returned to their home woods. More than 90 percent of the palila population has been reduced to a thirty square kilometer patch of forest on the mountainside. A fire in those woods would be a disaster for the bird population so the wildlife managers wanted to spread the birds out a bit.
Archaeological evidence shows that palila lived all over the main group of islands until the time of the Polynesian settlements, after that the birds retreated to the high country. The Polynesians didn't hunt or persecute the birds, they just converted their habitat to agriculture, and the rats that came along with the Polynesians almost certainly played a part in the birds' retreat. Since European settlement of the islands palila has continued its retreat to the high forests.
This once common and widespread species is down to the last two thousand birds. The causes of the palila's continued decline include the usual suspects such as introduced species, but are primarily, the conversion of their habitat to ranching and agriculture, and nest depredation by feral cats.
Wildlife scientists have spent years studying Hawaii's remaining native species and are working to restore habitat for palila and other species. We spoke with Paul Banko about his many years of work studying the natural history and conservation of this beautiful and increasingly rare animal.