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Nihoa Finches are found only on the tiny island of Nihoa, in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. This bird is common in its very limited range, but with just one restricted population, it is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters. Nihoa Finches are also vulnerable to the introduction of non-native plants and insects, but access to Nihoa is restricted and visitors are carefully searched before being allowed to enter the island.
Nihoa Finches are medium-sized finches with heavy, silver-colored bills. Adult males have yellow heads, yellow underparts, grayish backs with a yellow patch in the middle, and yellowish wings. Females and juveniles have a very different appearance; they too have yellow breasts, but their underparts, heads, and backs are all heavily streaked with brown and black.
Nihoa Finches are found only on Nihoa, a small island in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The species occurs on more than two-thirds of the island, but its entire range is still less than 0.5 square kilometers.
Between 1967 and 1996, population estimates for Nihoa Finches ranged from a high of 6,686 in 1968 to a low of 946 in 1987. This species' numbers are thought to naturally fluctuate somewhat, but some of the variation in annual population estimates might be the result of different survey protocols (including time of year).
Nihoa is a steep, rocky island largely covered by low shrubs and grasses. Nihoa Finches are omnivorous, feeding on seabird eggs, seeds, flowers, and insects. These birds nest in rock crevices, with an average clutch size of three eggs. As with other Hawaiian finches, Nihoa Finches are loud singers with complex, canary-like songs.
The major threats to Nihoa Finches are the introduction of non-native plant and insect species, and large catastrophic events, such as hurricanes, droughts, and major storms. Nihoa Finches' extremely limited range makes them extremely susceptible to extinction at the hands of a single major catastrophe.
Nihoa Finches were listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March 1967. The island of Nihoa is part of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), thereby providing protection for the species' habitat. Nihoa 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 Nihoa via their clothes or equipment. In addition, researchers visiting the island regularly perform hand weeding of introduced plants to control their growth. In order to establish another population of Nihoa Finches, and thereby reduce the risk of complete extinction via one cataclysmic event, a group of birds was introduced to French Frigate Shoals (also in the Hawaiian Islands NWR), but those birds did not survive.
What Can You Do?
U.S. National Wildlife Refuges provide essential habitat for Nihoa Finches and a great number of other species throughout the U.S. and its territories. 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 Nihoa 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/
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2002). Threatened and Endangered Animals in the Pacific Islands. Available http://pacificislands.fws.gov/wesa/finchniho.html October 2002.
BirdLife International (2000) Threatened birds of the world. Barcelona and Cambridge, UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International.
BirdLife International (2006) Species factsheet: Telespiza ultima, Nihoa Finch http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=8897&m=0
Culliney, J. L. 1988. Islands in a Far Sea: Nature and Man in Hawaii. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.
Pratt, H.D., P. L. Bruner, and D. G Berrett. 1987. The Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific. Princeton University Press, Princeton.