In early February 2012, our partners at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Biological Research Division called the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii to ask for our involvement in the recovery of an `akiapola`au Hemignathus munroi, which had been caught in a mist net at Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge on the Big Island. The `akiapola`au is a woodpecker-like member of the endemic Hawaiian honeycreeper family. This striking little creature has an unforgettable bill. It uses the broad and stocky lower mandible to hammer away at tree trunks and branches to excavate insects’ burrows or expose sap; it then uses its long and slender, curved upper mandible to probe the holes and extract the insects. `Akiapola`au are currently listed as endangered, due to threats of deforestation, habitat fragmentation, predation by introduced mammals, and avian disease.
Ornithologists often use mist nets to catch wild birds, attach leg bands, and gather important data about them such as their lifespan, migratory patterns, and biometric measurements. In this way, we add to our ever-growing knowledge of how well bird populations are fairing. However, immediately after release from the hand, this female `akiapola`au was observed flying poorly and was unable to sustain long flight or gain lift. Occasionally, when birds are caught and handled, they may suffer muscle strains, just as humans do. As you can imagine, birds have a hard time flying with strained wing or breast muscles, which in turn can affect their subsequent survival in the wild.
The field biologists immediately recaptured the `akiapola`au to assess her condition and judged that the bird was unfit for release. We happily provided a holding cage and waxworms for the short-term care of the bird. After a few days, it became apparent that the `akiapola`au would require long-term care to recuperate from her injuries. She arrived at our facility on February 13 and was treated like royalty; she was given a quiet environment, with limited human contact to make her as comfortable as possible. To limit the potential exposure of disease to the birds in our care, she was kept under quarantine conditions while we ran clinical tests to screen for disease.
Our feathered friend voraciously indulged herself on her favorite insects and also adjusted slowly to the selection of other items we offered. Curiously enough, we found her to be an aficionado of green peas (yes, the ones you find in the grocery store freezer section) and cantaloupe! Who would have guessed?
After about three weeks in our care, the `akiapola`au’s condition and behavior prompted us to transfer her from her recuperation cage into a small aviary as a means of assessing her flight ability. If we had any doubts about her abilities, she soon corrected them, as she showed us that not only was she back to her old self, but that she needed a bigger aviary, too! We quickly graduated her to a full-sized aviary, and she soon took full advantage with perfect flight capabilities and exhibiting natural foraging behaviors. I’m sure her neighbors—a puaiohi, palila, and Maui parrotbill—wondered about this new kid on the block who seemed to be making an awful lot of noise by pounding on all the wood in her aviary, looking for bugs.
By the start of April, it became clear that the “`aki” was fit for release. On April 9, the bird was transferred back to the Hakalau refuge, stopping in at the East Hawaii Veterinary Center for a final physical exam and the “green light” for release. At Hakalau, we installed her in a “howdy cage” overnight, enabling her to settle after her long journey and acclimate herself to her surroundings. The following morning, the `akiapola`au was released into her home range, very close to the site where she had originally been mist netted. Although the field crew from the USGS had spread out, encircling the release site just in case there was problem, the `akiapola`au delighted us all by flying straight up to the canopy and appeared to adjust very well to her old wild environment.
What’s particularly special about this event? To our knowledge, it has been at least 20 years since an `akiapola`au has been kept in captivity and almost certainly the first time an `akiapola`au has been rehabilitated back to the wild. The successful rehabilitation of the `aki is a shining of example of how cooperation, husbandry expertise, and knowledge of Hawaii’s birds can lead to a very happy ending. But the conservation action for this one `akiapola`au represents just one very small piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Conservation efforts, such as reforestation, minimizing habitat fragmentation, exotic predator and feral ungulate eradication, as well as an improved understanding of the species in the wild, will be essential to ensure the `akiapola`au population has a secure future.
Rebecca Espinoza is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii.