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Hawaiian Birds

If you live in Hawaii, you're really "far out." The Hawaiian Islands are farther from the continents than any other islands on Earth. These islands formed from volcanoes millions of years ago. Hot lava (liquid rock) oozed out from inside the Earth under the ocean. It piled up to form mountains that reached high above the water's surface. At first the new islands didn't have any plants or animals. Some plant seeds arrived on the wind and in the feathers of migrating birds. Other plants drifted in on the water. After many years, the plants covered most of the islands. Then, when animals flew or swam there, they had good places to live.

Learn more about Hawaii's endangered birds

The 'i'iwi (ee-EE-vee), at left above, has a curved bill that's perfect for slurping sweet nectar from forest flowers. The 'oma'o (oh-MAH-oh), at right above, is great at snatching plump berries.

Scientists think that about 15 species (kinds) of birds and some insects were able to make the long trip.

After a while, small groups of the first birds flew to new parts of the islands. Some of these groups  slowly changed into new species that were able to eat lots of different plants and insects. Finally about 70 species of birds were living in Hawaii's many habitats.

Many of those birds are now called honeycreepers. They were named for the way some of them creep through the trees, searching for sweet nectar ("honey') from the flowers. Some honeycreepers had long, downward-curving bills. They were good at getting nectar and snatching insects from hard-to-reach places. Others had short bills that could crush seeds.

Amakhi Honeycreeper in Hawaii

Some honeycreepers, like the 'amakihi (ah-mah-KEEhe) at left, are doing well. They nest safely in trees, and they're able to eat different kinds of food.


But many other forest birds are having a tough time surviving. The cliff-dwelling puaiohi (pooah-ee-OH-he), above, eats only a few kinds of food.

  Rat preys on bird eggs in Hawaii

Predators such as rats, pictured at left, can get to the bird's eggs and young.

For millions of years, the birds got along just fine in their new home. But then people came to the islands, and things began to change.

The first people to arrive were Polynesians (pah-luh-NEE-zhuns). Starting 2000 years ago, they came in giant canoes from other islands in the Pacific. They brought pigs, dogs, rats, and new plants.

Then about 200 years ago, people started coming from as far away as Europe. They brought farm animals such as goats, sheep, and cows. They brought crop plants too, and weeds came with the crops.

The people cut down some of the forests to make way for crops and homes. And their animals gobbled up many of the plants that the Hawaiian birds needed. Some of the new plants spread quickly across the islands, crowding out many of the ones that were already living there. And some farm animals escaped and ran wild.

Wild pig

Wild pigs (left) root up plants and turn the forest floor into a muddy mess. Fences were built to keep the pigs out.

Today, wild pigs, goats, and sheep still run free, eating forest plants. Rats and other predators eat birds and their eggs. But even worse, mosquitoes spread deadly diseases among the birds. (The mosquitoes arrived on a ship about 175 years ago.) They breed in lots of places, including the mud puddles left behind by wild pigs. Now many birds are dying from their bites.

Are there ways to save Hawaii's forests and the animals that live there? Yes!

Scientists, forest rangers, and volunteers have begun to get rid of some of the plants that don't belong in Hawaii. They are trapping animal pests, moving them out of the forests, and putting up fences to keep them out. When the wild pigs are kept out, there aren't as many puddles where the mosquitoes can breed. Some scientists are also trying to find a way to help the forest birds resist diseases carried by the mosquitoes.


Honeycreepers of many kinds, such as this 'apapane (ah-pah-PAH-nay), at right, are dying from diseases carried by mosquitoes. Can you see the mosquito near this bird's eye?

Many people are trying to make Hawaii's forests safe for the birds. And a group called The Peregrine (PAIR-uh-grin) Fund is helping in another way. The group's scientists collect eggs from nests in the wild. Then they raise chicks that can later be returned to the forests.

Often it takes many months for the scientists to find a pair of rare birds. Cyndi Kuehler, one of The Peregrine Fund scientists, tells how they do it. "We camp out in the forests where it rains day and night ," she says. "Each day we walk around searching for birds with our binoculars. At the same time, we listen carefully for the birds' calls or songs.

When we finally spot a pair of birds, we have to keep watching them to see if they build a nest."

"Once we know there are eggs in the nest, we leap into action," Cyndi goes on. "Sometimes we have to use rock-climbing ropes to scramble up or down cliffs to reach the nests."

Feeding a baby bird

Open wide! These three-day-old' akohekohe (ah-KOhay-KO-hay) are begging to be fed. They keep the scientists busy, because they need food every hour. The eggs of the very rare puaiohi are kept warm in a big incubator. The scientists have raised at least 14 chicks from puaiohi eggs.

The scientists put the eggs from the nest into a small incubator (INK-you-bay-tur). It's a little box that has special controls to keep the eggs warm. The incubator must be carried very carefully. If the eggs are shaken up or damaged, they won't hatch. A helicopter comes to pick up the eggs and rush them to the building where they'll be hatched.

The scientists know that if they take the eggs from a nest, the bird usually lays more to replace them. So when they take the eggs, more birds than usual will hatch.

At The Peregrine Fund's Conservation Center, the eggs are placed in a large incubator. This incubator turns the eggs every hour, just as the parent birds would have done.

When the eggs are ready to hatch, the workers play tapes of parent birds' calls. This encourages the chicks to peck their way out. Many chicks weigh no more than a jellybean when they hatch. They eat squashed mealworms, grubs, and even cricket guts!

Once the birds are able to live by themselves, scientists put them in large cages. The cages stand on stilts high in the treetops. After the birds get used to being in the forest, the scientists open the cage doors. Then the birds can leave, but they can come back to the cages for food whenever they need to. Slowly, they learn to find their own food and live among the trees.

Alan Lieberman, one of the scientists, says, "Lots of people are working together now to make the forests safe once again for Hawaii's birds. I think the time will come when the children of Hawaii will be able to go into a forest and say, 'Look, there's a honeycreeper, and there's another one.' I certainly hope so!"

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