The Rarest Bird in the World

Posted at 11:10 am October 2, 2004 by Alan Lieberman

 po'ouliThere are so many rare species of birds in the world, more than one barroom argument has erupted over which is indeed the rarest of them all. On September 10, 2004, the po`ouli, the species that must truly be considered the rarest in the world, became part of the Maui Bird Conservation Center’s (MBCC) propagation and recovery program.

The po`ouli is a small member of the Hawaiian honeycreeper family. The world population is known to be no more than three individuals, all found in the rain forests of Maui’s Hanawi Natural Area Reserve on the eastern slopes of Mt. Haleakala. The po`ouli wasn’t even discovered by scientists until 1973 with an initial population estimate of no more than 250 birds. The population has steadily decreased since its initial discovery. Only three birds have been reliably sighted over the past few years. All three birds were banded in 1997, and despite years of searching, field biologists are fairly certain that there are no additional birds to be found.

After many meetings, discussions, (and some argument), the consensus was to bring these three birds into captivity to begin the long, slow, and risky prospect of captivite breeding. The first po`ouli was caught on the evening of September 9 by Hawaii state biologists and helicoptered to the MBCC early the next morning. The bird is in good health despite missing one eye, and known to be at least eight years old. Its sex is being determined through chromosomal evaluation. It eagerly eats small tree snails, waxmoth larvae, wild-captured insects, and native Hawaiian berries. Our hopes are for a long life for this bird, and Godspeed to the field biologists who are anxiously preparing to capture the other two po`ouli. The future of the species depends on the dedication and expertise of all players in this conservation drama.

Alan Lieberman is the program director for the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.

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