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Critically Endangered ‘Akikiki Named Carrot Brought to Safety

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Photos courtesy of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources

A critically endangered ‘akikiki named Carrot, who has fathered at least two chicks, was rescued Saturday, Sept. 3, from a valley deep in the Alaka‘i Plateau on Kaua‘i and taken to safety at the Maui Bird Conservation Center.

Named for its orange leg band, Carrot is the father of Erica, a chick brought into human care last December. For the past 10 days, a field team set up mist nets and used sound attraction to try and draw in Carrot and another of the bird’s offspring, Abby.

Carrot and Abby are thought to be the last remaining ‘akikiki in an area called Halehaha. While the team spotted Abby, they were unable to catch it.

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‘Akikiki, a native honeycreeper only found on Kaua‘i, have experienced a perilous decline as malaria-carrying mosquitos have moved into their territory, killing them one by one. With only 40 birds left in the wild, every bird safely brought into captivity to protect them from avian malaria will give the species a better chance of not going extinct, said Lisa “Cali” Crampton, who leads the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project.

“Carrot is particularly important because he has a proven track record of breeding, so hopefully he can teach some valuable behaviors to ‘akikiki born in captivity,” Crampton said in a press release.

The field team was comprised of Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project staff Justin Hite and Tyler Winter, along with Sonia Vallochia from the Maui Forest Bird Project Recovery Project, Cara Thow from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit Hawai‘i Island avian disease program and bird care expert Peter Luscomb. They captured Carrot in the very last hours of their more-than-a-weeklong search and rescue mission.

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Carrot becomes the 37th ‘akikiki in safety at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, where they’ll remain, while a large collection of agencies and organizations grapple with plans to introduce incompatible male mosquitoes into critical forest bird habitats to suppress mosquito populations and try and set-back the extinction clock.

“This is an exciting moment, because we achieved our goal, but also a very somber moment,” Crampton said in the press release. “I lay awake last night thinking about Abby, the remaining ‘akikiki at Halehaha, wondering what would happen to it, whether we would see it again, whether we’ll have another opportunity to try to catch it., trying to imagine Halehaha without ‘akikiki.”

Carrot was given fluids, food and antiviral medication after getting to the Maui Bird Conservation Center. He also got a thorough check-up before going into quarantine for the next 30 days.

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How have Carrot, Erica and Abby survived when all the other Halehaha ‘akikiki have disappeared?

“It might partly be luck of the draw, like why some people have still evaded COVID despite how widespread it has become,” Crampton said in the press release. “It might be that their territory, which encompasses a couple of ridges, gets a little more wind and thus has fewer mosquitoes? Or it may be that they have had avian malaria but were lucky enough to get a mild dose and survived.”

Carrot’s rescue is great news but tempered by the knowledge that there’s a good chance the species will be extinct in the wild within a year, before other birds can be rescued.

“We are very excited and humbled to have the opportunity to save the last few ‘akikiki from near certain death in the wild and prevent the complete extinction of the species,” Crampton said in the press release. “This decision was not easy to take; when possible we prefer to leave species in the wild. But the disappearance of the Halehaha population, which used to be the most numerous one, does not bode well for the remaining birds, and so at this point, the best course of action is to protect them in captivity until mosquitoes and avian malaria are controlled on the landscape over the next few years. After the threat of disease is mitigated, we plan to release ‘akikiki back into the wild. So, this is a temporary situation.”

Next spring a partnership of the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Pacific Bird Conservation and other partners hope to mount a mass ‘akikiki search and rescue mission to bring the last wild birds and their eggs to safety.

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