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Photo by Peter LaTourrette.
These flashy, conspicuous birds can be found foraging noisily for nectar in the canopy of high-elevation rainforest on Maui's Haleakala Volcano. Declared an Endangered Species in 1967, 'Akohekohe still faces the threats of habitat degradation by feral pigs and the introduction of avian diseases by mosquitoes. Populations of 'Akohekohes appear to be stable in several important refuges, and a captive breeding program has recently been initiated to augment populations in the future.
Adult 'Akohekohes are spectacularly-plumaged, medium-sized Hawaiian honeycreepers. These distinctive birds have a tuft of whitish feathers extending upward from the upper mandible, a patch of yellow feathers behind the eye, a light-blue facial patch, and a red nape. The body of 'Akohekohe is predominantly black, but both the upperparts and underparts of the bird are highlighted with blue-gray and red feathers. 'Akohekohes have black tails with prominent white markings at the tip. Immature birds lack the crest and colorful plumage of adults, and have an overall grayish appearance. The Hawaiian name for this species, pronounced "ah ko-hay ko-hay," comes from a commonly-heard call that can be used to locate and identify these birds.
'Akohekohes are found only on the northeastern slope of Haleakala Volcano on the island of Maui. The species formerly occurred on the neighboring island of Moloka'i, but that population is now extinct.
A series of surveys conducted in 1980, 1988, and 1995 to 1997 at Hanawi Natural Area Reserve suggest that the population of 'Akohekohes in this area has remained stable during that time.
A'kohekohes are vocal, conspicuous birds, which are fairly easily seen in their high-elevation rainforest habitat. Almost the entire population is found between 1,500 and 2,300 meters of elevation, in forest permanently enshrouded in clouds and mist. Average rainfall in 'Akohekohes ' range at 2,000 meters is 235 to 275 inches per year.
'Akohekohes are typically found in the canopy of 'ohi'a trees, where they feed on the nectar from the trees' blossoms. 'Ohi'a nectar alone makes up 40-75% of these birds' diets, and they also feed on the nectar of other plants, but caterpillars, flies, spiders, and other invertebrates can comprise 10-40% of 'Akohekohes' diets. This species is quite aggressive, and individuals will often chase away other species that also consume nectar. Because of the continuous nature of the forest canopy, 'Akohekohes forage primarily by hopping or running from tree to tree, rather than flying.
In addition to being the major food source for 'Akohekohes, 'ohi'a trees are the only known nesting site for these birds. Females build nests, lay one, or more commonly, two eggs, and then incubate for about 17 days. Both parents feed the young birds, presumably providing them with nectar and invertebrates. Nestling typically leave the nest for good after 21 days, but several days beforehand, they will leave the nest to practice hopping about in the canopy.
At this point in time, the major threats to 'Akohekohes appear to be the negative effects of introduced animals (especially feral pigs) and plants. Feral pigs wreak havoc on the soil and vegetation in native forests, destroying native understory and subcanopy plants and creating wallows that can act as breeding sites for disease-carrying mosquitoes. Rainforest areas that have been affected by pigs can recover if the pigs are removed, but these areas have higher concentrations of non-native plants. Although 'Akohekohes feed primarily in the canopy on 'ohi'a trees, they also feed on flowering understory shrubs. The destructive activities of pigs, together with the encroachment of non-native plants into formerly pristine forest, may cause 'Akohekohes to search for food at lower elevations, where infectious mosquitoes and avian diseases are common.
'Akohekohe was listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1967. Much of the habitat where the species is currently found is remote and inaccessible, thereby protecting birds from direct human impact. Current conservation efforts are focusing on the preservation of native forest habitats, largely through pig and alien weed control efforts. Pig eradication and exclusion efforts have been successful in three major reserves with 'Akohekohes, but other areas remain unprotected. The battle to prevent the spread of non-native plants to upper-elevation native rainforest includes weed control efforts at lower elevations in the Kipahulu Valley, as well as very limited human access to high-elevation reserves.
The Peregrine Fund, Hawai'i's Department of Land and Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey recently began a captive breeding program for 'Akohekohes. This year six birds were hatched for the first time. As part of the captive breeding plan, 'Akohekohes will eventually be released into areas where the birds are currently found in low numbers.
What Can You Do?
The Endangered Species Act has helped protect 'Akohekohes 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/
BirdLife International (2006) Species factsheet: Palmeria dolei, Akohekohe http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=8924&m=0
Pratt, H.D., P. L. Bruner, and D. G Berrett. 1987. The Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Berlin, K.E. and E.M. Vangelder. 1999. 'Akohekohe (Palmeria dolei). In The Birds of North America, No. 400 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D. C.