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Photo by Peter LaTourrette.
Palilas are large, yellow, gray, and white finches found only on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea volcano, on the island of Hawai'i. There, in dry mamane and mamane-naio forest, these birds use their heavy bills to feed on their preferred food, mamane seed pods. Recent conservation efforts and a captive breeding program offer hope for this endangered species, but the small remaining population of Palilas is still threatened by habitat degradation and mammalian predators.
Palilas are large Hawaiian finches with heavy black bills. Adult males have bright yellow heads and breasts, black "masks" between their bills and eyes, white bellies, gray backs and rumps, and yellowish wings. Females have the same general appearance as males, but are slightly duller in coloration.
Palilas are currently found only on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea volcano, between 2,000 and 3,000 meters of elevation, on the island of Hawaii. In particular, the west slope of Mauna Kea contains a large proportion (72%) of the current Palila population.
Population estimates conducted annually between 1980 and 1996 reveal a variable population size, ranging from 1,584 to 5,683 birds; there are no consistent trends from these data.
Palilas are found only in dry mamane and mamane/naio forests, where they feed almost entirely on immature mamane seed pods. These birds use their feet to manipulate the seed pods, and then tear them open with their heavy, parrot-like bills. Members of this species follow the mamane seed crop as it becomes available over a broad elevational gradient, starting at higher elevations and moving downslope.
The availability of mamane seeds affects both adult survival and reproductive success; in drought years with few mamane seeds, most Palilas do not even attempt to breed. Palilas also feed on caterpillars, mostly those of Mamane Coddling Moths (Cydia spp.), which provide an important source of protein.
Grazing by feral sheep and goats has caused significant damage to the mamane habitats on which Palilas depend. Introduced rats and feral cats prey upon Palila nests, which are also victimized by native Short-eared Owls. Non-native plants also pose serious threats to Palilas, slowing mamane regeneration and possibly increasing the risk of fire in the dry mamane forest.
Palilas were federally listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1967. In 1978, a Federal court ruled that all feral goats and sheep should be removed from critical Palila habitat. The subsequent removal of these animals from Mauna Kea has resulted in the regeneration of native mamane forest, but Palilas have been slow to recolonize newly regenerated areas, perhaps due to high site-fidelity within the species. In 1993, a number of Palilas were captured and moved to a new predator-free site, in the hope that the birds would stay in the new area and breed. Many of the translocated birds returned to their original home ranges, but at least two pairs of Palilas stayed in the new area and successfully bred. In addition to these translocation efforts, captive breeding efforts with Palila have resulted in the first successful captive hatching and rearing of an endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper. These captive breeding efforts, in conjunction with predator control efforts, are designed to increase the wild population of Palilas and expand the species' range into newly-regenerated mamane forest. Unfortunately, there has been high mortality of captive-reared chicks for unknown reasons and the factors affecting this are still under study.
What Can You Do?
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
The Endangered Species Act has helped protect the Palila and made it possible to learn critical information about its 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/
The recovery of the native Hawaiian species of endangered birds is a joint project of Zoological Society of San Diego, The Peregrine Fund, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey, Hawaii's Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate, Kai Malino Ranch, Kealia Ranch, and McCandless Land and Cattle Company. This private/public partnership is dedicated to the restoration of threatened Hawaiian species. To learn more about The Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation program, visit http://www.sandiegozoo.org/conservation/fieldproject_hawaiian_birds.html
Beletsky, L. 2000. Hawaii: The Ecotraveller's Wildlife Guide. Academic Press, London.
BirdLife International (2000) Threatened birds of the world. Barcelona and Cambridge, UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International.
BirdLife International (2006) Species factsheet: Loxioides bailleui, Palila http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=8901&m=0
Ehrlich, P.R., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1992. Birds in Jeopardy. Stanford University, Stanford, CA.
Pratt, H.D., P. L. Bruner, and D. G Berrett. 1987. The Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific. Princeton University Press, Princeton.