Bird of The Week: ‘Ākohekohe
Scientific Name: Palmeria dolei
Population: Fewer than 2,000
IUCN Status: Critically Endangered
Habitat: High-elevation rainforest on east Maui
About the ‘Ākohekohe
The ‘Ākohekohe (pronounced “ah ko-hay ko-hay”) is the largest living Hawaiian honeycreeper, with striking black, silver, and crimson-orange plumage and a forward-sweeping white tuft of feathers atop its head that gives the bird its English name “Crested Honeycreeper.” This distinctive bird, now found only on the island of Maui, is closely related to the more common ‘Apapane, which is still widely distributed across the main Hawaiian Islands. In addition to its distinctive plumage, the ‘Ākohekohe may be distinguished by another of our senses.
Nearly all species of Hawaiian honeycreepers, including the ‘Ākohekohe, have a musty, sweetish odor to their plumage. Some researchers have compared it to the smell of old, wet canvas. This pungent scent is so well-known that scientists actually consider it a characteristic of these birds’ taxonomic subfamily, the Drepanidinae, dubbing it the “Drepanidine odor.”
Songs and Sounds
The ‘Ākohekohe’s Hawaiian name originates from one of its low, throaty calls. It gives a variety of other calls and whistles.
Breeding and Feeding
Aggressive and Acrobatic
‘Ākohekohe are aggressive and territorial birds, defending areas around their nests and food sources year-round. This bird’s larger size allows it to easily chase off other native honeycreepers such as the ‘I’iwi when competing for food.
The ‘Ākohekohe’s breeding season coincides with the bloom of ‘ōhi’a trees, and it tends to nest in these native trees as well. The female is the chief nest-builder, with the male contributing some materials. She first creates a base of sticks and twigs, then adds a layer of mosses and lichens, which she molds with her body into a cup-shaped nest. ‘Ākohekohe nests have the same distinctive musty odor as the birds themselves.
The female usually lays one to two eggs, which she incubates alone. Both parents feed their chicks by regurgitation. Young ‘Ākohekohe fledge after several weeks of care; if the parents re-nest, they stop feeding the young from their first brood and chase them away from the nest areas. Successive broods can receive a longer period of parental care, which can last up to several months after fledging. As they disperse from their natal territories, juvenile ‘Ākohekohe gather in small flocks of three to four birds.
‘Ākohekohe are nectarivorous, feeding chiefly on nectar from the flowers of the ‘ōhi’a lehua tree. This liquified food source is gathered with a specialized tubular, brush-tipped tongue, a feature common to some honeycreepers and similar to other nectar-drinking birds such as the Cape May Warbler.
The ‘Ākohekohe also sips from other native plants, and pierces flower bases to collect nectar in the manner of some hummingbirds, such as the Black-eared Fairy and Long-tailed Sylph. It will sometimes glean caterpillars and other insects from tree leaves and bark. Long legs allow this big honeycreeper to hop and scamper across the tree canopy while feeding, and to perform acrobatic twists and splits to access flower nectar.
Region and Range
‘Ākohekohe Map courtesy of “Birds of North America” https://birdsna.org, maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY
The ‘Ākohekohe was once found throughout the islands of Maui and Molokaʻi, but it is now gone from the latter island. This species hangs on in remote, high-altitude native rainforests on the northeastern slope of Haleakalā, Maui — in an area estimated to cover only five percent of the species’ original range.
Conservation of the ‘Ākohekohe
The biggest threats to the ‘Ākohekohe come from avian malaria and avian pox, introduced to the Hawaiian archipelago by non-native mosquitoes that arrived along with European settlers. These diseases, particularly malaria, have devastated native Hawaiian bird populations, causing many extinctions and bringing other species, such as the Kiwikiu and ‘Akikiki, to the brink. The risk of further extinctions is rapidly increasing, as warming temperatures brought by climate change allow mosquitoes to survive and breed at much higher elevations, which increases the “mosquito zone” where avian malaria can easily be transmitted to vulnerable native birds.
The ‘Ākohekohe was listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1967. Ongoing conservation measures for the species include protecting and restoring native forest — particularly above the mosquito zone — and removal of feral ungulates. The ‘Ākohekohe and its habitat benefit from fencing that excludes these hoofed mammals from important reserves like the state’s Hanawi Natural Area Reserve, Haleakalā National Park, and The Nature Conservancy’s Waikamoi Preserve.
In 2009, ABC established its Hawai’i Program, a long-term conservation effort aimed at reversing the decline of endangered Hawaiian birds. Among other conservation successes, we have successfully worked with partners to establish a new population of the Endangered Millerbird on Laysan island, and helped support installation of predator-proof fencing at Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kaua’i to protect seabirds like the Hawaiian Petrel (‘Ua’u) and Newell’s Shearwater (‘A’o).
More recently, ABC has joined other organizations and agencies to create the Birds, Not Mosquitoes partnership, which is working to save native honeycreepers such as the ‘Ākohekohe by suppressing mosquito numbers in high-altitude forests using a naturally occurring bacteria called Wolbachia.
Policies enacted by the U.S. Congress and federal agencies have a huge impact on Hawai’i’s birds. You can help shape these rules for the better by telling lawmakers to prioritize birds, bird habitat, and bird-friendly measures. To get started, visit ABC’s Action Center. Our Hawaiian partners frequently need help with habitat restoration and other projects benefiting birds. If you live in or will be visiting Hawai’i and would like to volunteer, check the following Facebook accounts for opportunities: Kaua’i Forest Bird Recovery Project, Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project, and Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project.
American Bird Conservancy and local partners are restoring forests, protecting critical habitat, and much more to save native Hawaiian birds. This is a monumental undertaking, requiring the support of many, and you can help by making a gift today.
Source: American Bird Conservancy (abcbird.org)