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Nā Manu Nahele

The Native Forest Birds

Hawai‘i is a unique archipelago with incredible geology, culture, and biodiversity. More than 90% of our native plants, animals, fish, and insects are found only here and nowhere else on Earth. These unique species are deeply connected with Hawaiian cultural practice and identity. Since human arrival in Hawai‘i, 71 of the original 115 bird species found here have become extinct: 48 prior to the arrival of Europeans and 23 since Captain James Cook’s arrival in 1778.​

Hawaiian Honeycreepers


Hawaiʻi is internationally renowned for the incredible and unique species found only here, including native forest birds like the endangered Hawaiian honeycreepers. The Hawaiian honeycreepers are small native forest birds in the finch family. They coevolved with native Hawaiian plants and are integral in maintaining the health of native Hawaiian forests. Some honeycreepers help pollinate, while others eat grubs and insects from tree bark.

The Hawaiian honeycreepers are considered to be one of the most diverse groups of birds in the world. Historically, more than 50 different species of honeycreepers lived in Hawaiʻi – filling the forests, from mountains to sea, with their songs. But only 17 species remain today, 15 throughout the main Hawaiian islands. Many are nearing extinction.

Manu Moʻokū'auhau


The arrival of the birds to Hawaiʻi is memorialized through a classic piece of Hawaiian oral tradition called the Kumulipo. Thousands of lines long, this version of the Hawaiian creation chant recounts the creation of the universe, the life of the sea, land, and sky, and then ends with the birth of the Hawaiian gods and the creation of human beings. The birds arrived in Hawaiʻi during the third wā - or epoch. In comparison, the major Hawaiian gods did not appear until the eighth wā - with humans being created after that. This order of emergence places the birds as ancestors to the kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiians).

Researchers date the arrival of the ancestors of honeycreepers  – a group of Asian rosefinches  – to Hawaiʻi around 5-6 million years ago. These ancestors arrived when Niʻihau and Kauaʻi, the oldest islands of the current main Hawaiian islands, were still young and relatively new. From that rosefinch ancestor, at least 50 species of honeycreepers evolved in Hawaiʻi. The honeycreepers could be heard singing in trees from ma uka to ma kai – from the mountain to the shore.


Pratt honeycreeper adaptive radiation.PNG

Pilina between Manu and Hawaiʻi


The honeycreepers adapted and radiated into almost all of Hawaiʻi’s ecosystems: 

  • dry low-elevation shrublands, 

  • mesic and wet forests of ʻōhiʻa and koa, with their lush understories and the 

  • drier, sparser vegetation of high-elevation mountains. 

Their nuku (bills) diversified from being finch-shaped to: 

  • heavy and hooked like a parrot, 

  • straight and thin like a warbler or 

  • long and curved for sipping nectar. 

From birds that were predominantly seed-eaters, they diversified to dine on hard seeds, insects, nectar, and even our native kāhuli (land snails).

Today, only 17 species of honeycreepers remain, the majority of which can only be found in remote high-elevation forests. Many people have never personally met a native honeycreeper.



Biocultural Connections​


Our native forest birds are essential to Hawaiʻi because of their biological and cultural pilina, or intimate reciprocal relationships.


Biological Pilina:

Important roles in the forest. If our native birds thrive, so do our forests, because they:

  • Provide pollination and seed dispersal for native plants. 

  • Eat grubs and insects.

  • Contribute to nutrient cycling. 

  • Help sustain our vital watershed forests.


Cultural Pilina:


Forest birds are tied intimately to Hawaiian culture, and this pilina continues today: 


  • Native forest birds, like the ʻakikiki, are regarded as conduits for akua, the divine, functioning as the kinolau, or physical manifestations of deities. Among some families, they are ‘aumakua or family gods. 

  • ʻIʻiwi and other manu are valued for their brightly colored feathers, once used in Hawaiian featherwork, signifying royalty and embodying akua.​

  • ʻElepaio and other forest birds are part of traditional knowledge systems that continue to impart ecological wisdom today. 

  • Manu appear in numerous traditional songs, sayings, and stories as representations of natural, spiritual, and human phenomena.


Hawaiian Featherwork


Traditional Hawaiian featherwork exemplifies the importance of native forest birds to traditional Hawaiian society. Kia manu (bird catchers) captured small native forest birds primarily for their vibrant feathers, which were used for creating chiefly garments and accessories that were symbols of rank and prestige: 

  • ʻahuʻula (capes and cloaks) 

  • mahiole (helmets) 

  • kāhili (standards) 

  • lei hulu (feather garlands)


The brilliant feathers in these ʻaʻahu (garments) linked the ali‘i class with the upland realm of the gods, the wao akua. An immense amount of effort went into making these symbols of chiefly status. Each feather had to be tied individually onto the woven fabric net that formed the base of the cloak.



“Before we were working on recovery, but now we need to prevent extinction.”

 Lisa 'Cali' Crampton

Project Leader

Kauaʻi Forest Bird Recovery Project

Populations in Decline

The remaining Hawaiian honeycreepers’ populations have been declining due to habitat loss, increased predation by non-native species, and the effects of avian diseases spread by invasive mosquitoes. Habitat loss and degradation have been caused by human activities (e.g., agricultural conversion, water diversion, urban/suburban growth) and invasive species (e.g., weeds, pigs, goats, and mosquitoes). 


Mosquitoes were introduced to Hawaiʻi in the early 1800s and began to spread avian diseases in the early 1900s. ​Avian malaria, now the biggest threat to the Hawaiian honeycreepers, is a blood-borne parasite passed to birds through mosquito bites. The Hawaiian honeycreepers evolved without exposure to avian diseases, so the birds have little to no natural resistance. This leaves the birds incredibly vulnerable to the effects of avian malaria and pox. For many honeycreepers, a single bite from a mosquito infected with avian malaria could be fatal. But the spread of avian diseases began in the early 1900s; why are the effects worsening?


Until recent history, honeycreepers were relatively safe from mosquitoes because of physical separation. Mosquitoes live in warm areas which usually occur at low elevations. Honeycreepers live in high-elevation forests where temperatures are usually too cool for mosquitoes. But the effects of climate change are increasing the temperatures in high-elevation forests, making them a more habitable area for mosquitoes. This is directly increasing the transmission of avian diseases like avian malaria.


Without intervention, this disease will directly cause the extinction of some species of Hawaiian honeycreepers. 


The protection of the remaining native birds in Hawaiʻi, especially the increasingly rare honeycreepers is considered to be the highest bird conservation priority in the United States and in Hawai‘i.

Meet the Manu

ʻiʻiwi © Jim Denny

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