February 26, 2024

The Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, a small black and yellow bird with shiny feathers and a haunting song, was the last surviving member of the Hawaiian honeyeaters. This year it was officially declared extinct.

The ōʻō was one of 21 species that the US Fish and Game Service was removed from the endangered species list in 2023 because they disappeared from the wild. Gone are the small Mariana fruit bat – also known as the Guam flying fox – and the brindled white-eye, once one of the most common birds on that island. So are the Scioto madtom, a small, bearded catfish that lived in Ohio, and the Bachman’s warbler, which summered in the southern US and wintered in Cuba. Eight freshwater mussels in the Southeast are officially extinct, as are eight Hawaiian birds.

The delisting, which was completed in November after two years of study and consideration, came as no surprise to biologists and conservationists. Many of these species have not been seen in decades. But the announcement was a sobering reminder that the climate crisis and habitat destruction are accelerating a looming extinction crisis 2 million species worldwide.

For the scientists and environmentalists who worked to protect these species, the delisting was a moment to mourn – and to rekindle. “It’s a terrible tragedy,” said ecologist and author Carl Safina. “And I think that’s a breach of our moral guardrails.”

An 'i'iwi, an endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreeper, on the island of Kauai.  Once endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, the species is now susceptible to avian malaria.
An ‘i’iwi, an endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreeper, on the island of Kauai. Once endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, the species is now susceptible to avian malaria. Photo: Jim Denny/AP

Hawaii

In the US, the loss of biodiversity is felt more acutely in Hawaii than anywhere else. Eight of the 21 delisted species were Hawaiian forest birds. Four other species are at imminent risk of extinction, largely due to an epidemic of avian malaria, a disease transmitted by invasive mosquitoes, and habitat loss.

And the climate crisis, which has shifted local weather patterns and reshaped sensitive island ecosystems, further complicates matters, Rachel Kingsley said. As an outreach associate with the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project, a conservation organization, she has been involved in efforts to recover the critically endangered cousins ​​of the birds declared extinct this year.

“Many of the same threats that face the birds that were recently declared extinct are the same that threaten our forest birds now,” Kingsley said. “Within the last handful of years, the threat of malaria has really increased dramatically.”

The Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, a small black and yellow bird, was among those officially declared extinct in 2023.
The Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, a small black and yellow bird, was among those officially declared extinct in 2023. Photo: WikiMediaCommons

To combat the disease, which is spread by mosquitoes likely introduced via European ships in the early 19th century, a coalition of federal and state officials and nonprofit groups is releasing mosquitoes with a special strain of bacteria that can kill the insects. suppress. ability to reproduce. But in the meantime, warmer temperatures have expanded the mosquitoes’ range, pushing them to higher altitudes, leaving forest birds with little refuge. “Unfortunately, it looks like the fast forward button has been pushed on us,” Kingsley said.

Global warming has also fueled extreme weather, exacerbated drought and wildfire risk, further endangering the islands’ forest birds. This year, the devastating fire that destroyed the town of Lahaina nearly engulfed a conservation center for some of the world’s rarest birds, including the ‘akikiki, a species of honeycreeper considered the most endangered bird in the US. The fire came within about 150 feet of the property before conservationists could contain it.

For the scientists fighting to save them from extinction, bearing witness to their decline can be a profound and devastating responsibility. In his nearly 50-year career, Jim Jacobi, a biologist at the Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center, was one of the last people on Earth to ever see at least four birds now considered extinct. In 1984, he was one of the last people to ever hear the song of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō.

“I still get goosebumps – the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I think about it,” he said. He and two other researchers were hiking to a remote forest in Kauai when they heard it. “That Oo’oo – oo-auh sound.

“It was just amazing — very whistle-like,” he recalled. He immediately turned on his recorder to capture the song.

The bird flew away – but a few moments later, as they walked down to an old nesting tree, they heard it again. Jacobi wanted to make sure his recorder was ready and working, so he rewinded the tape and played it back.

Suddenly, ʻōʻō floated up to the researchers and sang its juicy song. It came so close that they didn’t need binoculars to see its shiny black feathers, and the yellow peek at its tail.

“I thought, wow, this is fantastic!” Sincock said. Almost immediately he deflated. The ʻōʻō was attracted to a recording of its own voice – thinking it was another bird. “It came because he thought he heard something he probably hadn’t heard in a long time – another one of his kind,” he said. This bird was perhaps the last of its species, singing for a mate that would never come.

Kauaʻi ʻōʻō was one of many ʻōʻō birds that lived in many parts of the Hawaiian Islands. Its delisting is the only complete loss of an entire bird family in modern times.

Its cousins ​​on the Big Island, Oahu and Molokaʻi, had even larger tail feathers that were once used to construct the cloaks and capes worn by Hawaiian royalty, said Jonee Peters, executive director of the Conservation Advice for Hawaii. Hunters would collect the feathers without harming the birds, during the moulting season – using skills and knowledge that have almost disappeared.

“What makes us Hawaiians is the collective experiences of ourselves and of our ancestors,” said Noah Gomes, a native ornithologist and historian in Hilo, Hawaii. “We lose something of ourselves when these birds disappear.”

Mourning lost species

The federal government first proposed removing nearly two dozen species from the endangered species list in 2021. Until then, only 11 other species had ever been delisted from extinction in the 50 years since the ESA took effect.

“The news just made me so sad,” said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “I had all these feelings at the time and I had to process them.”

So she organized a wake. She and a colleague wrote eulogies for each species, noting that the tiny Mariana fruit bat “wasn’t really that small,” and marveling at how the inch-long San Marcos gambusia made a home for itself in a half-mile has. , slow-flowing section of the upper San Marcos River in Texas. During a virtual ceremony, while volunteers read the tributes, she lit prayer candles embossed with each species’ image. “I thought about how I would mourn a friend — and of course we would have a ceremony and talk about them,” she said.

She also thought about how she could honor their memory. “It’s important to make space for grief, because grief is a rational response to what’s happening to the planet,” Curry said. “But it is also important not to live there. While I lit the candles for each extinct species, I also focused on what I could do to save the ones that are still here.”

The now-extinct Pig Toe mussel only received environmental protection seven years after it was last seen in the wild.
The now-extinct pig mussel only received environmental protection seven years after it was last seen in the wild. Photo: Alamy

When the Fish and Wildlife Services finalized its decision to declare the species extinct this year, Curry decided to advocate for more conservation funding and a strengthening of the Endangered Species Act. This year saw renewed scrutiny of landmark legislation and whether it is enough to combat the staggering rate of biodiversity loss.

In many cases, Curry said, the species declared extinct this year were listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) too late. The flat pig’s toe clam, for example, only received ESA protection in 1987 – seven years after it was last seen in the wild, and more than a decade after construction began on a dam that experts agreed would endanger its population.

In other cases, species are protected—but scientists lack the funding and resources needed to recover them. A 2016 study by CBD found that Congress provides only about 3.5% of the funding that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s own scientists estimate is needed to recover species.

The Endangered Species Act has helped bring some species – such as the bald eagle – back from the brink. “But in some ways, the ESA is like having an emergency room and intensive care unit, without providing regular vaccinations and checkups,” Safina said.

The magnitude of the extinction crisis, he said, “is completely overwhelming the capacity of the human mind to truly know and understand”.

In the midst of a worsening climate crisis and rapid deforestation and habitat loss, almost all of nature needs urgent action and protection. It is almost impossible for us to comprehend how fast, how many species are disappearing, added Safina. “And so the effort to stop this crisis becomes more of a religious kind of experience than a scientific one, in a sense, more moral than practical.”

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