Hawaii Island’s Most Endangered Bird: The Palila

Palila Hawaii Judd Patterson
Photo credit: Judd Patterson via birdsinfocus.com

The palila is one of the largest living Hawaiian honeycreepers and one of the rarest. At one time these colorful birds lived on Oahʻu and Kauaʻi but amazingly they are now only found on very small area of land on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea.

Unique honeycreeper

The palila has a distinctive coloring, with a golden yellow head and breast, and a gray back. The wings of the bird are olive-green. The palila grows to approximately six inches in length. Its diet consists almost entirely of māmane tree seeds, supplemented with naio berries, fruits, caterpillars and moths. 

Palila Hawaii Hawaii.gov
Photo credit: hawaii.gov

History

The palila has been in the Hawaiian Islands for over 100,000 years. However, of the original 16 finch-billed honeycreepers in the Hawaiian Islands all are now extinct except the palila. 

Honeycreepers are particular bird species that have a heavy, seed-eating bill like that of the palila.

Palila Mural Hilo
Mural of Palila in Hilo

This mural (9ft x 12ft) was painted by Hilo artist Kathleen Kam, based on a photo by Big Island photographer Jack Jeffrey. 

Limited habitat

The palila is dependent on the māmane tree for its food source (it uses its hooked bill to open the seed pod) and also for its habitat. Unfortunately, this has created a huge problem for the palila. Because the māmane tree, which once grew throughout the islands, only grows at a 6,000 ft location on the slopes of Mauna Kea, the palila’s habitat has been greatly reduced. If there is a drought the palila may not try to breed since they depend so entirely on a good crop of seed pods from the trees.

Their habitat zone is now a 25 square mile area. The last count of the birds totaled 1,000, which was the lowest count in 20 years. 

What caused population decline?

In the past 200 years introduced species such as sheep, goats and cattle have destroyed a lot of the māmane forest that existed in the islands. Feral cats and rats have also had an impact on palila eggs and their vulnerable young. Introduced plants often replace areas that were once dominated by māmane, especially after fire or periods of drought caused by climate change.

Palila Painting Pamela Thomas
'The Endangered Ones' by Pamela Colton Thomas

Conservation efforts

A number of strategies are being employed to try and save the endangered palila.

  • A 6ft fence around Mauna Kea to stop sheep and goats from gaining access to the Palila Critical Habitat zone and causing damage to māmane trees.
  • All sheep are being removed from the Palila Critical Habitat zone.
  • Increased reforestation – planting of māmane trees and other natives.
  • The Keauhou Bird Conservation Center is currently breeding palila in captivity in order to be released into the  wild.

The palila has now been endangered since 1973 when it was added to the Endangered Species Act, while the Palila Critical Habitat was designated a special zone in 1978 .

Hopefully the strategies enacted to help save the palila and its fragile habitat, in particular the māmane tree, will enable the bird to avoid extinction. Find out more at restoremaunakea.org

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