When I first got to Hawai‘i I was excited to go to the zoo and see some ‘i‘iwi’s with my own two eyeballs. But I hadn’t really grasped just how precarious the situation is for native birds. You won’t find these honeycreepers in the zoo and you won’t find any at low elevations. The birds that have survived are the birds that stay high up on the mountains, where the mosquitos don’t go. One bite from a mosquito can kill a native honeycreeper. And most Hawaiian forest birds don’t do well in captivity, some won’t even breed. So that’s a big problem when we’re talking about endangered species with active threats in the wild.
The situation is so dire because a single mosquito bite can transmit disease that will kill a native bird like the ‘i‘iwi in matter of days. And there is, so far, no effective way to treat them in the wild once they’re sick and no vaccine to prevent them from getting sick. But! if the number of mosquitoes could be reduced, the birds would gain an edge. Mosquitoes aren’t evil lucifer bugs, although sometimes that’s hard to remember when you’ve become their tasty snack, but these bugs do become winged angels of death when they transmit disease. Birds have their own kind of malaria transmitted by mosquitoes, related to the malaria that makes humans sick but not the same. Avian malaria and avian pox don’t sicken humans but the birds here in the islands are especially vulnerable because they haven’t been exposed to these diseases like mainland birds so they have no immune resistance and the native island birds, sadly, just die.
But something really great is in the works to help the birds survive the mosquitoes! The good news is there is a plan to decrease the population of mosquitoes here in the islands by using a naturally occurring bacteria called, Wolbachia, that stops them from spreading disease. It’s a bacteria that’s already found in 60% of insects on earth and it’s safe for humans, animals, and the environment! Hawai‘i is the perfect place to implement this because mosquitoes didn’t even get here until the 1800s when they arrived on ships from other parts of the world. (What a bummer, huh? Way to mess with paradise, guys— bring in some blood sucking insects. Boooo!) Anyway, mosquitoes never would have made it here into the middle of the Pacific on their own the way the birds did and they don’t belong here. No native species naturally depend on them as a food source so it would be a great thing if we humans could set right our mistake and reduce the number of these harmful bugs. Last I read, the timeline for this puts it starting in 2024 but I hope it can be sooner. Time is precious and so are Hawai‘i’s birds.
For more info on this project, check out http://birdsnotmosquitoes.org