“The loss of 21 species in the US this year has been acknowledged as a logical reaction.”
The Kaua’i ‘O’o, a small bird characterized by black and yellow feathers and a melancholic melody, was the sole remaining species of the Hawaiian honeyeaters. This year, it was officially confirmed as extinct.
The Ōʻō was one of 21 species that were removed from the endangered species list by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2023 due to their disappearance from the wild. Among these species are the Mariana fruit bat, also known as the Guam flying fox, and the bridled white-eye, which was once a common bird on the island. The Scioto madtom, a small catfish with whiskers that lived in Ohio, and the Bachman’s warbler, a migratory bird that spent summers in the southern US and winters in Cuba, are also gone. Eight freshwater mussels in the southeastern region and eight Hawaiian birds have been declared officially extinct.
After an extensive two-year examination and review, the removal of these species from the list in November was expected by experts in biology and conservation. Some of these animals had not been observed for numerous years. However, this declaration serves as a wake-up call to the fact that the rapid effects of climate change and destruction of natural habitats are causing an alarming decline in biodiversity, putting over 2 million species at risk of extinction worldwide.
The delisting of these species has been a somber event for the scientists and environmentalists who have been dedicated to their protection. It has also served as a call to action. Ecologist and author Carl Safina expressed, “It is a tremendous loss and a violation of our ethical standards.”
In the United States, the decline of biodiversity is most strongly felt in Hawaii compared to other regions. Out of the 21 species that have been removed from the list of endangered species, eight of them were Hawaiian forest birds. Four additional species are currently facing a high risk of extinction, primarily due to an outbreak of avian malaria, a disease spread by invasive mosquitoes, and loss of habitat.
According to Rachel Kingsley, the climate crisis has caused changes in local weather and affected fragile island ecosystems, making efforts to recover endangered bird species even more challenging. As an outreach associate for the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project, a conservation group, she has been actively involved in trying to revive the critically endangered relatives of the recently declared extinct birds.
Kingsley stated that the dangers faced by birds that were recently declared extinct are also endangering our forest birds currently. The threat of malaria has significantly intensified in the past few years.
In an effort to combat the spread of the disease, believed to have been brought by European ships in the 19th century, a coalition of government and non-profit organizations is releasing mosquitoes infected with a specific bacteria that hinders their ability to reproduce. However, rising temperatures have caused the mosquitoes to expand their territory, forcing forest birds into higher elevations where they have limited shelter. According to Kingsley, it appears that circumstances have rapidly escalated.
The rise in global temperature has also contributed to severe weather events, worsened the likelihood of drought and wildfires, and posed an even greater threat to the survival of forest birds on the islands. Recently, a destructive fire nearly consumed a conservation facility in Lahaina, which houses some of the most rare and endangered bird species in the world, such as the ‘akikiki, a type of honeycreeper that is classified as the most endangered bird in the United States. The flames came dangerously close to the property, but conservationists were able to successfully defend it.
Reworded: For the scientists working to prevent their extinction, observing their decrease can be a significant and heartbreaking duty. Over his 50-year profession, Jim Jacobi, a biologist at the Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center, has been among the few individuals to witness four bird species that are now extinct. In 1984, he had the opportunity to hear the song of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, one of the last occasions it was ever heard.
“I still experience chills – the hair on the back of my neck rises when I recall it,” he stated. He and two other scientists had trekked to a distant forest in Kauai when they heard it. “That sound of Oo’oo – oo-auh.”
“I was blown away – it sounded just like a flute,” he remembered. He quickly pressed record to capture the melody.
The bird flew off, but a short while later, as they walked down to an abandoned nest tree, they heard it once more. Jacobi made sure his recording device was prepared and functioning by rewinding the tape and playing it back.
Out of the blue, the ʻōʻō bird flew towards the scientists, serenading them with its sweet melody. It flew so near that they could clearly see its shiny black plumage and the hint of yellow on its tail.
Sincock exclaimed, “This is amazing!” However, his excitement was short-lived as he realized the reason for the ʻōʻō’s appearance. The bird had mistaken a recording of its own voice for another bird and had come in search of a potential mate. Sadly, this ʻōʻō was likely the last of its kind, singing in vain for a mate that would never come.
The Kauaʻi ʻōʻō was a species of ʻōʻō bird that inhabited various regions of the Hawaiian islands. Its removal from the list signifies the unfortunate extinction of an entire family of birds in recent history.
The Big Island, Oahu, and Molokaʻi also had relatives with larger and more impressive tail feathers. These feathers were traditionally used to create cloaks and capes for the Hawaiian monarchy. According to Jonee Peters, the executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawaii, hunters would gather the feathers without causing harm to the birds during their shedding season. However, the techniques and understanding of this practice have mostly disappeared over time.
Noah Gomes, a historian and expert on native birds from Hilo, Hawaii, believes that our shared experiences and those of our ancestors are what truly make us Hawai’ian. He also expresses concern that the disappearance of these birds means losing a part of our identity.
Mourning lost species
In 2021, the US government suggested taking 22 species off the endangered list. Prior to this, only 11 species had been removed due to extinction in the 50 years since the implementation of the Endangered Species Act.
Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, expressed her sadness upon hearing the news. She explained that she had a lot of emotions to process at the time.
She orchestrated a memorial event. Together with a co-worker, they composed speeches for every type of animal, acknowledging the size of the Mariana fruit bat and admiring the ability of the San Marcos gambusia to thrive in a small section of the river. In a virtual gathering, volunteers read the eulogies as she lit candles adorned with images of each species. Reflecting on how she would mourn the loss of a friend, she explained the importance of having a ceremony and sharing memories.
She reflected on ways to pay tribute to their memory. “It’s crucial to allow room for sorrow, as it is a logical reaction to the state of our planet,” Curry stated. “However, it’s just as crucial to not remain fixated on it. While lighting candles for each extinct species, I also directed my attention towards actions I can take to protect those that still exist.”
After the Fish and Wildlife Services officially declared the species extinct this year, Curry made a commitment to push for increased conservation funding and improvements to the Endangered Species Act. This year has brought renewed attention to the effectiveness of this important law in combatting the alarming decline of biodiversity.
According to Curry, the species that were declared extinct this year had often been designated as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) after it was too late. For instance, the flat pigtoe mussel was only granted ESA protections in 1987, seven years after it was last observed in its natural habitat. This was more than ten years after a dam was built, which was known to pose a threat to the species’ population.
In certain situations, animals are safeguarded – however, researchers do not have enough financial support and materials to restore them. According to a 2016 report from CBD, Congress only supplies approximately 3.5% of the required funding for species recovery, as estimated by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s scientists.
The Endangered Species Act has been effective in reviving certain species, such as the bald eagle, from near extinction. However, according to Safina, the ESA is similar to having an emergency room and intensive care unit, but lacks preventative measures like regular immunizations and check-ups.
He stated that the magnitude of the extinction crisis is far beyond what the human mind can comprehend.
With the climate crisis worsening and deforestation and habitat loss occurring rapidly, urgent action and protection are needed for almost all of nature. According to Safina, it is difficult for us to comprehend the speed at which numerous species are disappearing. Therefore, addressing this crisis becomes more of a moral and religious pursuit rather than a purely scientific one.