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Bird's Capture Is a Big Step Toward Saving It

One of last three po'ouli is netted in Hawaii. It's a female, so hunt is on for male for it to mate with.

September 12, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — For a year, avian conservationists have been quietly stalking the last three members of what may be the world's most endangered species of bird, a hummingbird-sized creature that lives only in the dense rainforest of Maui.

It's been a frustrating experience. The po'ouli is small, fast and furtive, and its habitat is steep, thick and wet.

But Saturday, researchers at the San Diego Zoo and in Hawaii joyously -- albeit cautiously -- announced a breakthrough: A female po'ouli has been captured, the first step toward a captive breeding program that may rescue the po'ouli from extinction.

"It's a desperate situation," said Alan Lieberman, the San Diego Zoo's avian conservation coordinator. "There are no other options."

Efforts to capture a male po'ouli now will be redoubled, possibly as soon as this week. Lieberman is set to fly to Hawaii on Wednesday to join the po'ouli rescue effort.

Scientists decided a year ago to capture the three birds after po'oulis apparently failed to reproduce in the wild. All three have been captured at least once before, but efforts focused on encouraging them to breed naturally in the wild.

The campaign to save the po'ouli -- by the San Diego Zoo, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources -- has faced daunting problems.

Feral pigs and goats have destroyed much of the birds' natural habitat. Black rats, Polynesian rats and the Indian mongoose -- all species introduced to the Hawaiian Islands -- prey on po'ouli.

Researchers had hoped the three birds -- thought to be one male and two females -- would reproduce naturally after one female was captured and placed in closer proximity to the male. Alas, the birds flew to separate parts of the forest.

After repeated efforts, researchers finally caught one of the females Friday in a fine-meshed net. An avian veterinarian accompanied the bird to the Maui Bird Conservation Center, operated by the San Diego Zoo's Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species.

A team plans to return to the forest this week in hopes of snagging one of the two remaining birds, preferably the male.

"Our hopes and our prayers go with this team into some of the roughest terrain in Hawaii," said Paul Henson, field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Islands branch. "We have no guarantees we can save this species, but we have to try."

Po'oulis have a black head, white cheeks and breast, and light reddish-brown markings on the rump. They live in the Hanawi Natural Area Reserve at an elevation of 4,500 to 6,500 feet, where rainfall exceeds 350 inches annually.

"These are birds that are seldom seen even when you know where they are," Lieberman said.

The po'oulis don't exactly announce their presence, either. Their muted voice has been likened to dripping water, a sound not uncommon in a rainforest.

The species was first discovered in 1973 by three University of Hawaii students conducting research in the Hana rainforest. Fossil discoveries since then have suggested they once were widespread.

Their form and behavior are so unusual that scientists have placed them in their own genus within the Hawaiian honeycreeper family, Melamprosops. In the mid-1970s, the population was estimated at several hundred.

Even if the other birds are captured, there is no assurance that the breeding will succeed. All three are thought to be at least 7 years old, which is not young for birds. Their fertility level is unknown.

The long-term goal is to produce po'oulis at the Maui center and reintroduce the species to the wild.

But if captive breeding fails, the species will join dozens of other Hawaiian birds that have become extinct.

Said Lieberman: "The repercussions of failure are daunting."

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