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This member of the Hawaiian Honeycreeper group (family Drepanididae) is rather common on its namesake island, now averaging several birds per acre. A population introduced to Midway Island in 1891 grew to a sizable number but was destroyed by rats during World War II. It seems that a small population survives on Pearl and Hermes Reef where it was introduced in 1967.
The species is not likely to be confused with any other bird on Laysan Island, where no other songbird is yellow-headed and gray-backed with a heavy, hooked bill. The song is a complex, canary-like warbling.
When rabbits were introduced to Laysan Island in 1903 and subsequently devoured the island's vegetation, a number of endemic land birds became extinct. The Laysan Finch plummeted to a tiny remnant population but clung to existence by feeding on eggs and dead birds. After rabbits were eliminated in 1923, the Laysan Finch steadily recovered as vegetation returned again to the island. Although the species appears to be in little current danger its limited range places it at constant risk from weather effects and the threat of invasive species.
Nesting begins in February and continues into May, with adults building nests in the crannies of rocks or in clumps of the native bunchgrasses. Adults are readily observed foraging on the ground and among the bushes, their stout, hooked bills facilitating an omnivorous diet that ranges from seeds and insects to other birds' eggs.
With a world population limited to one island, this species is under threat from single catastrophic events ranging from storms to introduction of alien species. An introduced grass that competed with the native bunchgrass is now thought to have been eliminated. Constant monitoring helps prevent the introduction and spread of alien species, and this species has proven resilient in the face of near catastrophe.
Laysan Finches were listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March 1967. The island of Laysan is part of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), thereby providing protection for the species' habitat. Laysan is not a populated island, and access to it is strictly controlled. Biologists and other researchers who are permitted access to the island are carefully inspected to ensure that they do not accidentally introduce seeds, eggs, or insects to Laysan via their clothes or equipment. In order to establish another population of Laysan Finches, and thereby reduce the risk of complete extinction via one cataclysmic event, a group of birds was introduced to French Pearl and Hermes Reef 1967 where they now survive in small numbers
What Can You Do?
The Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuges provides essential habitat for Laysan Finches. Unfortunately, the refuge system is often under-funded during the U.S. government's budgeting process. To learn more about how you can help gain much needed funding for U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, visit: http://www.audubon.org/campaign/refuge_report/
The Endangered Species Act has helped protect Laysan Finches and made it possible to learn critical information about their biology. Audubon continues to work to ensure that this vital legislation is being used to protect our publicly-owned wildlife resources. Check out http://www.audubon.org/campaign/ to learn of the latest news about the Endangered Species Act and how you can help. To learn more about other species protected under this legislation, visit: http://endangered.fws.gov/
Join Hawaii Audubon Society. A chapter of National Audubon, The Hawaii Audubon Society works to protect and educate people about Hawaii's birds. For more information visit http://www.audubon.org/states/hi/
Bailey, A. M. 1956. Birds of Midway and Laysan Islands. Denver Mus. Of Nat. Hist., Mus. Pict. 12: 1-130.
BirdLife International (2000) Threatened birds of the world. Barcelona and Cambridge, UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International.
BirdLife International (2006) Species factsheet: Telespiza cantans, Laysan Finch http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=8898&m=0
Culliney, J. L. 1988. Islands in a Far Sea: Nature and Man in Hawaii. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.
Ehrlich, P.R., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1992. Birds in Jeopardy. Stanford University, Stanford, CA.
Pratt, H. D. et. al. 1987. A Field Guide to the Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific. Princeton UP, Princeton, New Jersey.