Six Palila were released into a newly restored forest on Hawaii Island.
The six Palila that were hatched and raised at the San Diego Zoo Global’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, flew in the open air for the first time on Sunday and Monday.
Palila are a distant relative of finches, and are the last surviving members of sixteen species of finch-billed, seed-eating birds in the main Hawaiian Islands.
They were once found on Kauai and Oahu, but are now only found high on the slopes of Mauna Kea.
The multi-year effort to try and boost their numbers and prevent their possible extinction involves a large number of collaborators, many of whom had representatives on hand to assist with Tuesday’s release into the Puu Mali Restoration Area on towering Mauna Kea’s northern flank.
The Palila have been under constant observation.
They received daily food, and on May 17, 2019, they were outfitted with radio transmitters, attached to a backpack-style harness that will help researchers track them in the coming months.
Officials say feeding stations are placed within the release area to provide supplemental food to help the birds adjust to the wild.
“Currently Palila are found in one small isolated area on Mauna Kea. Having such a small population in one area puts the species at a very high risk of extinction. This release is the beginning of our attempt to establish a second population on the mountain to broaden their current range and reduce the extinction threat.” said Lainie Berry, Hawai’i Forest Bird Recovery Coordinator at the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
Like most native Hawaiian forest bird species, Palila have been affected by habitat loss and degradation, as well as introduced predators such as cats and mongooses.
Palila are a specialized species that depend on mamane for approximately 90 percent of their diet year-round. Mamane seeds are poisonous to other birds, but Palila have no problem eating hundreds of seeds daily.
The rapid decline of the Palila population has led scientists and managers to take actions to restore the dry forest and evaluate the forest health over time and changes in environmental factors.
Additional releases of Palila reared in conservation breeding centers are planned for later this summer, and translocations of wild Palila are planned in subsequent years.
The Palila and mamane forest’s decline occurred over decades, so recovering the Palila will take many years, but Tuesday’s release is an encouraging first step in this process.