The ‘amakihi, also known as the Hawaiian honeycreeper is a small green/yellow songbird that is endemic to Hawai‘i. It has long been thought of as being extremely hearty and adaptable to habitat change. They are foragers who feed on mostly nectar, supplemented with insects and spiders. Their song can be heard on Big Island, Mau‘i and Moloka‘i. Up until 1995 they were also thought to be living on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu, but upon closer inspection, were re-classified as a different sub species on those islands. The ‘amakihi used to live on Lana‘i, but mysteriously started dying off around 1920. The last confirmed sighting of an ‘amakihi on Lanai was in 1976, and they are now believed to be extinct there. They are so tough that it’s thought they are evolving immunity to avian influenza, avian malaria and avian poxvirus. Pretty impressive huh? Unfortunately there is a new enemy to the birds, and it ain’t humans.
Knemidokoptes jamaicensis (or scaly leg mites for us non-latin speaking folks) have recently been found on some birds on the Big Island. 26% of the birds caught in the Manuka natural area reserve were found to be infested with the mite. It’s a very nasty little pest that burrows into the legs and feet of the birds and causes deformities that eventually prevent the birds from being able to perch, preen or forage for food.
What is known for sure is that this is a relatively new problem. A study performed in 1991 showed no evidence of scaly leg mites. Since then birds were banded and recaptured in 2005 with no evidence still. But then in 2007 two birds were found to have the disease. This most recent study confirms that the mites are on the rise, and spreading leeward, as well as west toward Puna.
Little is known about how this will affect the population, hopefully this tough little bird will survive, after all they are found nowhere else on earth. Thanks go out to the hard working people who are watching after these little honeycreepers, we hope that they don’t go the way of Lana’i and are here to enjoy throughout future generations.