A Wrenching Decision to Save Three Little Birds

Plan to Breed Creature In Captivity Leaves Little Room for Error

By Rita Beamish
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 3, 2003; Page A03


The world's rarest known bird is a dark little creature, difficult to discern in the dense rainforest that is one of the wettest places on earth. It's not colorful. It doesn't even sing. But the tiny po'ouli -- "black face" in Hawaiian -- inspires desperate fear among scientists.

The known population of the secretive birds totals just three. And so today, a team of wildlife experts plans to mount a bold mission, first to capture the lot and then to try to breed them in captivity. If they fail at either, the species almost certainly will be lost forever.

They admit it's a long shot.

"This is one of the scariest situations I've ever been in," said Alan Lieberman, program director for the San Diego Zoo's Hawaii program at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, a state-federal partnership. The existence of only three birds, he said, "leaves us absolutely no room for error. We have no chance to do better the next time."

Aside from the numerical odds, the effort is risky because most attempts to breed in captivity rely on eggs collected from the wild and hatched in captivity. Rarely has the capture of adult birds been tried, and never with perching birds such as the po'ouli, Lieberman said. But "desperate times call for desperate measures," he added.

One of more than 300 endangered species in Hawaii's fragile environment, the po'ouli is a member of the honeycreeper family, and is so rare that it is the only bird in its genus. It was discovered by University of Hawaii students in 1973 on the island of Maui. No more than two dozen of the one-ounce birds were ever spotted, but scientists, extrapolating, believe they numbered 200 at that time. Experts say the bird's stunning decline stemmed from loss of habitat, voracious rats introduced to the islands by Polynesian and European migration, and the tramplings of feral pigs in the po'ouli's foraging grounds.

The po'ouli is among thousands of plant and animal species unique to Hawaii, the endangered-species capital of the world. More than half of the 140 native bird species already have gone extinct, and others, including the po'ouli, have been driven into the highest, most rugged habitat, such as the Hanawi Natural Area Reserve on Maui.

Because of the islands' isolated location and paucity of indigenous threats, native species evolved without natural defenses to the predators and disease that later came to the islands. Their habitat shrank dramatically as rainforests gave way to agriculture and development.

The surviving trio of po'ouli, believed to be two females and a male, are homebodies who live in separate sections of the reserve. Romance appears to be a low priority. Last year, matchmaking scientists transported a female into the male's domain. Within hours she flew home and stayed there.

"It's very hard to find them. They can go years without being seen," said Scott Fretz, forest birds coordinator for the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
A vigorous debate about what to do next -- including whether to let the birds quietly disappear -- led to the last-ditch effort: six week-long netting expeditions that begin today. Knowing the bird's sensitivity to disturbance, biologists are taking every precaution.

"The stakes are very high. We're thinking through everything ahead of time. Any situation that comes up, we are ready for it," project coordinator Trent Malcolm said.
Eight-member search teams will tote a plastic avian intensive care unit, veterinary tools and medicines, he said, along with the po'ouli's gastronomic favorites: tree snails and insects. For days and weeks, they will monitor several 20-foot, fine-mesh nets in the hope that the po'ouli fly into them. As each bird is caught, "one very sure-footed person" will carry it in a soft-sided box over rough, muddy terrain to a field headquarters, said team member Eric VanderWerf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

>From there it's a 10-minute helicopter ride to the Maui Bird Conservation Center, home to about four dozen birds. And then the real challenge will begin.

Food and nest-building supplies will be provided so the birds can relax in their 30-foot indoor-outdoor aviary. Several members of ano ther native species, the Maui parrotbill, will be kept nearby to make them feel at home. The three po'ouli initially will be housed in separate, adjacent cages. If the male appears to favor one female, those two will be caged together.

If they produce an egg, it will be whisked to an incubator for VIP treatment. In the wild, many tropical birds lay only one or two eggs a year, VanderWerf said.

Michael Buck, the state Forestry and Wildlife administrator, estimated the cost of the venture at more than $300,000. Sensitive about investing so much in one long shot when many other species have greater likelihood of survival, officials say the po'ouli efforts will also help other endangered species.

"If we were able to pick and choose and just deal with issues that have a high rate of success, we would not have tried to save the po'ouli," Buck said. "The odds are not good at all." But the habitat preservation will likely save five other endangered birds, he said.

For many experts, deciding what to do about the po'ouli has been wrenching. "It's like if a member of your family was sick," Buck said. "Do you pull the
plug? Do you do aggressive chemotherapy? It's not unlike that."

But there's a bigger picture, he said. With only a small portion of Hawaii's strapped budget earmarked for endangered species, wildlife officials, who rely on federal help, hope that the po'ouli's plight will increase public and political support for their cause.

"This is not just about the po'ouli. For Hawaii, this is our best rainforest, our best habitat management; it's the best story we have. If we're ever going to raise attention to get more resources to Hawaii, this is the story. I've had to think about that," Buck said. "What I think the po'ouli wants from us is to bring some visibility to the issue and to make sure that none of its other family that's up there gets down to the small numbers that the po'ouli has."

As to whether the po'ouli is worth it, Lieberman said that is debatable. "No one is comfortable letting any species go extinct when there is a chance to prevent it," he said. "As long as you know you can do something, you should do something. . . . Not only is it 11, but it's 11:59. And the clock has not struck midnight yet."