Category Archives: Bird conservation

Help Save Wood Thrush: Drink Bird Friendly Coffee

Wood Thrush singing. In 1853, Henry David Thoreau wrote of the Wood Thrush: “This is the only bird whose note affects me like music. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It changes all hours to an eternal morning.” Photo by Lang Elliot

By Bridget Stutchbury

The Wood Thrush is an ambassador for the forest birds of eastern North America, and a modern-day “canary in the coal mine.” According to the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), this species has declined by over 50 percent since systematic counts began in the late 1960s.

The number of Wood Thrushes found during Breeding Bird Surveys has dropped by about 50 percent since the 1960s.

I wrote about the demise of the Wood Thrush in Silence of the Songbirds, and since then I have received dozens of comments from readers about the emotional loss they feel when the Wood Thrush disappears from their neighborhood. Wood Thrushes are rarely seen, but their flute-like song is bold, beautiful, and full of life. Summer evenings used to bring a refreshing and ringing dusk chorus of “ee-oh-lay” from thrushes in the forest by their house, but now several years have gone by with none at all. Each spring brings new but diminishing hope.

What can be done to bring their beloved thrushes back?  My answer is to drink Bird Friendly® coffee (which is organic, fair trade, and shade grown) to help give Wood Thrushes a safe place to spend their winter when they are thousands of miles from our back yards.

Tracking Birds with Tiny Backpacks

Where exactly do our Wood Thrushes go after they are finished breeding? To find out, I have used newly miniaturized tracking devices called “geolocators,” which the birds carry as a little backpack and which must be retrieved and downloaded when the bird returns to its breeding site the next year. The geolocator measures light levels every few minutes, and then sunrise and sunset times can be converted into latitude and longitude.

Geolocators are “light loggers” and use sunrise and sunset times to determine a bird’s location. Photo by Bridget Stutchbury.

In May 2008, my graduate students caught the very first Wood Thrush to be tracked for its entire migration. At the same time that this forest in northern Pennsylvania had been buried under 18 inches of fresh lake effect snow, “our” Wood Thrush was in Nicaragua and completely at home in a world of strangler figs, howler monkeys, and toucans. I was stunned to see that in spring this bird had flown 2,300 miles in only two weeks.

Most Wood Thrushes from the central- and north-eastern part of the breeding range winter in eastern Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Source: Stutchbury et al. (2009) Science 323: 896.

Of the five Wood Thrushes tracked that first year, all spent our winter living in eastern Honduras and Nicaragua. This was not just a coincidence. We have now tracked over 70 Wood Thrushes that bred in the central-east or north-east part of the breeding range, and the vast majority also wintered in eastern Honduras, Nicaragua, or western Costa Rica.

Wood Thrush with Geolocator by Elizabeth Gow

Wood Thrush wearing a small geolocator tracking device on his back. Photo by Elizabeth Gow.

This part of Central America is a Wood Thrush hotspot, but the tragedy is that it is also a deforestation hotspot and is losing its tropical forests at one of the highest rates in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization 2011 State of the World’s Forests report, since 1990 Honduras has lost 27 percent of its forest, and Nicaragua 31 percent, to agriculture. It should come as no surprise, then, that Wood Thrushes who depend on those forests are disappearing quickly. The scale of our assault on this endearing forest icon is enormous; the North American population size of Wood Thrushes has dropped by about 12 million birds since the 1960s.

The Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources in Nicaragua maps of forest loss show the extreme level of deforestation in the recent past, and for the coming decades.

You Can Help: Go Bird Friendly

Bird Friendly shade coffee farms are high-quality forested habitat for dozens of species of migratory songbirds, as well as tropical birds that there live year round.  In the village of San Juan del Río Coco, Nicaragua, a cooperative of more than 400 small coffee producers raise more than 2.5 million pounds of Bird Friendly certified coffee every year. This one co-op adds up to about 8,000 acres, a green oasis that is surrounding by miles of deforested land devoted to pasture, sun coffee, and other crops.  Saving heavily shaded coffee farms throughout this region would protect tens of thousands of acres of habitat for Wood Thrush. But farmers need your help.

As Jefferson Shriver’s blog post illustrates, small and medium-size coffee farmers gain many ecological and economic benefits from keeping a multi-layered and diverse set of tree species on their farm. Recent studies have shown that birds can directly benefit farmers by controlling insect pests and increasing coffee production.

What is missing is large-scale support and commitment from the millions of coffee drinkers in America.  Too many birders are not aware of the benefits of shade coffee to birds and farmers, or do not realize how easy it is to buy Bird Friendly shade coffee and help the birds they love.

What can you do to make sure that our Wood Thrushes and other forest songbirds remain common and serenade future generations for years to come? Drink Bird Friendly coffee!

Bridget Stutchbury. Photo by Douglas Morton

Bridget Stutchbury is a professor at York University, Toronto. Since the 1980s, she has followed songbirds to their wintering grounds in Latin America and back to their breeding grounds in North America to understand their behavior, ecology and conservation. Bridget is author of Silence of the Songbirds (2007) and The Private Lives of Birds (2010).

Editor’s Note: At American Bird Conservancy, we’re drinking Birds and Beans coffee. The quality is superior, and since we’re all about conserving birds, nothing less will do! We find it easy to order: Just set up a recurring subscription and you’ll never have to worry about where to get coffee again. We encourage you to give it a try.


Unexpected Dividends: Migratory Sandpipers in a Bolivian Reserve

A Buff-breasted Sandpiper foraging in the grasslands at Barba Azul, which is an important stopover site for these migrant shorebirds. Photo by Ed Schneider.

By John Nielsen

First and last, save habitat. If you had to pick a single rule for bird conservation groups to follow that would probably be it. Nobody ever looks back and says, “I wish we had saved less bird habitat,” for one thing. For another, the rewards for preserving these wild places can be greater than expected.

As a case in point, take the land deals that created Bolivia’s wondrous Barba Azul Nature Reserve in 2008, and then doubled its size in 2012. Asociación Armonía, a Bolivian conservation group and longstanding partner of American Bird Conservancy, made those acquisitions with help from ABC, Rainforest Trust, and a host of other groups.

Both acquisitions have been hailed as godsends for one bird in particular: the Critically Endangered Blue-throated Macaw from which Barba Azul (or in English, “blue beard”) got its name.

The critically endangered Blue-throated Macaw occurs only at the Barba Azul reserve. Photo by Paul B. Jones

The critically endangered Blue-throated Macaw occurs only at the Barba Azul reserve. Photo by Paul B. Jones

Other Rare Animals Conserved

People who read news reports about the creation of Barba Azul may remember seeing references to other rare creatures found in the reserve —everything from maned wolves, pumas, and jaguars to a wide range of declining native birds, including Greater Rhea, Long-tailed Reed Finch, and Streamer-tailed Tyrant.

One bird that was barely mentioned in the early news reports was the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a long-distance migrant that breeds in the Arctic and winters in Argentina. Bennett Hennessey, Director of Asociación Armonía, said the reason for that was simple: when Barba Azul was created in 2008, researchers rarely visited the area during the rainy season, which is when the “buffies” are around. “At the time it was assumed that Buff-breasted Sandpipers rarely stopped here while migrating south to Argentina,” Hennessey said. “Basically, because we did not know that they were out there we did not go looking for them.”

Accidental Sightings

Hennessey says he got his first inkling that more than few Buff-breasted Sandpipers were stopping in these grasslands in the fall of 2008, when he and a colleague were surveying the then-private ranchlands that became Barba Azul. “We were driving through a wetland area when the vehicle got so badly stuck that somebody had to drive a tractor to the site and pull the vehicle up onto firm ground, which took several hours. While waiting for the tractor to arrive I went bird watching, and saw an unexpectedly large group of Buff-breasted Sandpipers foraging in a dried-up lagoon.” Hennessey saw more foraging buffies while bird watching with his son a few weeks later. “These observations suggested that the Beni grasslands of Barba Azul could be an important stop-over site for Buff-breasted Sandpipers in particular and boreal migrant shorebirds in general,” he said. “We took that idea to Gary Donaldson of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), which funded a study of the migratory shorebirds that use Bolivia’s tropical grasslands as wintering grounds or stopover sites.”

The Rio Omi winds through the flooded grasslands and palm islands that make up the Barba Azul Reserve. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik, ABC.

The Rio Omi winds through the flooded grasslands and palm islands that make up the Barba Azul Reserve. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik, ABC.

That research, begun in 2009, continues today. “In that time, we’ve learned that Buff-breasted Sandpipers are very common in the fall in Barba Azul,” said Hennessey. “They arrive here weak and hungry after crossing roughly 1,000 miles worth of largely inhospitable forests of Amazon basin. They rest, they eat, they build up weight and strength, and then they leave, finishing their long journey south to pampas grasslands in Argentina.”

First and last, save habitat. It’s always a good idea and there’s no better way to save the treasures that have not yet been discovered.

John NielsenJohn Nielsen is Senior Writer/Editor at ABC and a former Environment Correspondent at National Public Radio. In 2006 his book Condor/To the Brink and Back/The Life and Times of One Giant Bird won the National Outdoor Book Award for Natural History Literature.


Does Bird Friendly Coffee Matter? A Farmer’s Perspective

Chestnut-sided Warbler, one of many migratory species that overwinters on Central American shade coffee farms. Photo by Greg Lavaty.

By Jefferson Shriver

“Bird Friendly®” coffee’s very name makes it obvious that there are clear benefits for the birds and bird habitat. At Gaia Estate—a medium-sized family farm in Nicaragua that my wife and I own—we grow Bird Friendly coffee, and the birds are plentiful.

In addition to year-round residents like Turquoise-browed Motmot and Collared Aracari, we see many migrants. Baltimore Orioles, Summer Tanagers, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and Yellow and Chestnut-sided warblers are just a few of the birds we welcome back each year. In fact, upward of 125 species of birds have been observed on the farm.

But how about the farmer?  Is there a clear business and livelihood case for farmers to adopt the Bird Friendly farming approach?

entrance gate gaia

Entrance to Gaia Estate, a family farm in Nicaragua where Bird Friendly coffee is grown. Photo courtesy Jefferson Shriver.

A Century of Traditional Farming

At Gaia Estate, coffee has been grown in a “three-story” shade system for over 130 years. Here, the underbrush of a forest was cleared and most of the trees kept, leaving more than 70 species of trees in place and a very tall canopy.

Growing coffee in a shaded, agroforestry system like this used to be the norm in Nicaragua and in most of the country.  The broader landscape was a tapestry of rustic shade-grown coffee farms very similar to what we have at Gaia today.  Varieties of Arabica coffee such as Bourbon and Tipica, which were originally found in the forests and love the shade, were grown for a consistent cash income.

But coffee was never the whole story. Farmers also intercropped hardwoods, fruit trees, and semi-perennial crops such as bananas, roots, and tubers that provided them with food, fodder, and lumber when they needed it.  They also knew that a three-story shade system would provide a blanket of leaf litter and root systems to protect their soil from erosion and lock in moisture during dry periods; that it would provide wind and rain breaks to shield coffee from extreme weather; and that it would keep the water springs and streams running through their farms vibrant and clean.

A Walk in the Forest

Despite a changing rural landscape and coffee industry, we continue to conserve this tradition today at Gaia. Our tangerine harvest comes in March, avocados in June, and limes, coconuts, and banana harvests year-round. Organically raised chickens run amuck on the farm and provide a weekly supply of eggs, and fallen trees provide lumber for construction. We grow cinnamon, clove, guava, soursop, wild-grown chile pepper, and cilantro—all amidst the coffee. Vanilla, a shade-loving climbing orchid that winds its way up and around trees, is on its way to becoming a primary new cash crop on the farm.

vanilla at Gaia

Vanilla, a shade-loving climbing orchid, is a new cash crop on the farm. Photo by Jefferson Shriver.

We selectively hand weed instead of using herbicides, leaving a new generation of tree seedlings spread by bats and birds to grow and eventually replace the elder giants. Instead of highly toxic pesticides, we use certain species of trees and plants on the farm to combat pests.  We use manures, coffee residues, and nitrogen-fixing, leaf-shedding trees instead of synthetic fertilizers to keep our top soil healthy and crops fertilized.  The permanent and temporary farm workers we employ at different times of the year enjoy a shaded, toxin-free environment.

Time and again, those who visit Gaia consider their experience to be more of a walk in a forest than a farm, and always comment about the high volume of butterflies, ants, and lizards they see compared to other farms, to say nothing of the birds.

Buffer against Changing Conditions

Bird Friendly production systems are also a major buffer to one of the most serious threats coffee farmers have ever faced: changing growing conditions. Arabica coffee is a rain-fed crop and extremely sensitive to just the right kind of growing conditions: consistently cool average temperatures (particularly night temperatures), plenty of rain that is distributed fairly evenly (no extended drought), no extreme winds, and the right shade-to-sun ratio.

Sadly, the planet is not providing these types of conditions for farmers the way it used to. As an agriculture advisor in the developing world for the past 16 years, I have had countless conversations with coffee farmers living along the equator.

What they are experiencing, similar to what we are seeing at Gaia, are longer dry seasons, stronger winds, stronger rains, unpredictable rainy seasons, and warmer average temperatures. These factors are causing flowering to become irregular and pests and diseases to migrate. Plantations are dying or barely productive. When the weather changes like this, coffee becomes more difficult to grow and is less viable to a farmer.

Turquoise-browed Motmot_Luke Seitz_U

Turquoise-browed Motmot, one of many resident birds on Gaia Estate. Photo by Luke Seitz.

Counting More than Beans

Today there are powerful voices and economic forces in most coffee-producing countries that promote a chemically intensive, shadeless, monocrop system with the promise of higher yields per hectare. I will be the first one to say that over the short term, these systems will out-produce the traditional shade grown system if it is only beans we are counting.

But if we look at benefits beyond coffee yield to include the multiple outputs of a shade-grown, intercropped system, the Bird Friendly alternative remains an attractive one to small- and medium-sized farmers. Finding a price premium for their coffee in a Bird Friendly-certified market provides a true tipping point to maintain these systems over the long term.

We sought Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly certification in 2010 in search of some market recognition for this farming approach. We were fortunate to find that in Birds & Beans. However, the market for Bird Friendly coffee is in sore need of expansion if other farmers stand to benefit at significant scale.

Bird Friendly farming is a story of synergistic relationships, of diversity, a celebration of life in its many forms in an agro-ecological system.  It is also the best natural insurance policy against changing growing conditions (aka climate change) available to farmers today.

I suppose we could grow coffee in the sun, all lonesome and by itself, but why on earth would we? We would like to keep those 125 species (and counting) of birds around too.

Jefferson ShriverJefferson Shriver is co-owner of Gaia Estate. He has lived in Nicaragua for over 16 years. See a video by Birds & Beans featuring Gaia Estate here:

Editor’s Note: Want to help? It’s easy to purchase Bird Friendly coffee from a company such as Birds & Beans. For other ways to help migratory birds, consider becoming a member of the Western Hemisphere’s bird conservation specialist: American Bird Conservancy

SNAP! How I Photographed 585 Species in One Year to Benefit Hawaiian Birds

Whiskered Screech-Owl, one of the 585 bird species David Pavlik captured on film during his 2013 big year. (All photos in this post by David Pavlik.)

Whiskered Screech-Owl, one of the 585 bird species David Pavlik photographed during his 2013 “big year.” (All photos in this post by David Pavlik.)

By David Pavlik, graduate student in Conservation Biology, University of Minnesota

Wow, what a year. From Northern Hawk Owl to Great Kiskadee, my 2013 “photographic big year”—focused on raising funds for ABC to help out Hawai’i’s endangered bird species—exceeded expectations in every way thanks to so many bird enthusiasts, and maybe including some of you!

Back at the beginning of 2013, I made a plan to travel a lot, taking photos of different species of birds. I asked potential supporters to consider donating either a flat amount for the year-long campaign or a set amount for each species of bird that I photographed.

My target was to photograph 500 distinct species—and I am pleased to announce that I exceeded that goal. The final tally was 585 different species photographed and a whopping chunk of change to help out the birds: almost $6,000!

I initially thought that I might get a few pledges from some close friends, and maybe a few more from conservation-minded birders. As the year went on, it quickly became obvious that there was much more support for this type of project than I thought. ABC promoted the project in newsletters and on Facebook; articles were written in local newspapers; and eBird supported the project with an article on their home page.

Elegant Trogon, a sought-after species photographed in southeastern Arizona.

Elegant Trogon, a sought-after species photographed in southeastern Arizona.

Following all that help, the pledges started rolling in, and my big year was on its way to becoming a success.

Zig-Zag Route from Michigan to California

My big year started in Michigan. Winter birding in Michigan can be tough, but I made a trip to the Upper Peninsula where I photographed some great birds including Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Hoary Redpoll.

At the end of January, I headed south to Florida for my job working with Brown-headed Nuthatches at Tall Timbers Research Station. I left a week early and birded from northern Florida down to the Everglades, then back up to the Panhandle. This was a tremendously successful week and I picked up some great birds including Western Spindalis and La Sagra’s Flycatcher. Sticking around Florida until early May meant I hit peak migration in the Panhandle and, before returning to Michigan, I had already photographed 300 species of birds.

Green-tailed Towhee, a colorful resident of Western sagebrush and shrub habitats.

Green-tailed Towhee, a colorful resident of western sagebrush and shrub habitats.

After Florida, I had a few free weeks before I needed to head out west for my summer field job. I used my frequent flyer miles to catch a flight to Alaska to attend the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, where I photographed some tough-to-find species including Yellow-billed Loon, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Arctic Tern, Marbled and Kittlitz’s  murrelets, Pacific Golden-Plover, Eurasian Wigeon, and Aleutian Tern.

The rest of my summer was spent in the Great Basin of Nevada and California conducting butterfly surveys. My friend and fellow Michigan birder Kevin Welsh and I drove to Nevada, making a small detour to southeast Arizona. We saw most of the Arizona specialties including Montezuma Quail, Mexican Chickadee, Scott’s Oriole, and Elf Owl.

Best of the Big Year: Hawaiian Petrel

Of course, while in the Great Basin, I paid attention to the birds (not just butterflies) and spent my free days chasing birds all over California.  I even managed to get on two pelagic trips. The highlight of my year came on a trip out of Monterey Bay with Shearwater Journeys, where we saw a Hawaiian Petrel! This endangered Hawaiian species is extremely rare off the California coast and was a life bird for just about everyone on board.

The rare Hawaiian Petrel, photographed off the coast of California—the highlight of the year.

The rare Hawaiian Petrel off the coast of California—the highlight of the year.

Next, I talked myself into making a long drive over to the Ruby Mountains in Nevada. This was another successful trip, where I found two Himalayan Snowcock, many Black Rosy-Finches with young, Dusky Grouse, and Ferruginous Hawk.  At this point, I had already passed my goal of 500 birds and still had big plans for the rest of the year.

Ending with a Bang in the Rio Grande

It was mid-August by the time my job ended and it was nearly time to start grad school at the University of Minnesota. Luckily, there were still plenty of common birds for me to photograph during fall migration in Minnesota. I picked up new birds in Duluth, Minneapolis, and at Sax-Zim Bog, including Winter Wren, Northern Goshawk, Great Grey Owl, and Philadelphia Vireo.

Great Grey Owl, North America’s largest owl species. This photo was taken at Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota.

Great Grey Owl, North America’s largest owl species. This photo was taken at Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota.

With the year winding down, along with my first semester of grad school, I booked a flight to south Texas. What better way to end the year than with a winter trip to the Rio Grande Valley? I spent four days birding with my friend Mike Lester and we did really well, picking up Muscovy Duck, Tropical Parula, and many South Texas specialties like Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, Common Pauraque, and Audubon’s Oriole.

Ongoing Inspiration, An Invitation

In addition to thanking all the individual supporters, ABC, and eBird, I also want to thank Debi Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys for donating  the pelagic trip out of Monterey Bay, where the photograph of a Hawaiian Petrel became the highlight of my year.

This project has inspired me to continue raising money for conservation. If anyone is interested in buying a high-quality, matted print of any of the pictures taken on my photographic big year, I’ll donate a portion of all profits to ABC to support even more Hawaiian bird conservation. (Did you know that Hawai’i is the bird extinction capital of the United States?) Prints won’t be available for all photos due to image quality, but contact me at and I’ll see what I can do.

I was incredibly fortunate to visit many great birding spots and had some good friends to keep me going throughout the year. And of course, this project certainly wouldn’t have been possible without the wonderful conservation-minded supporters who donated to this cause. Thanks to all!

David Pavlik graduated from Northern Michigan University with a degree in zoology. He has done bird research in Florida, Arizona, California, Nevada, Wyoming, Michigan, and Alaska. He is now a first-year graduate student in the Conservation Biology program at the University of Minnesota.

White-out on the White Mountain: Restoring Forests on Mauna Kea

Hawai'i's not all white sands and beaches. This snow-covered truck awaited our freezing field crew on Mauna Kea. Photo by Robert Stevens

Hawai’i’s not all white sands and beaches. This snow-covered truck awaited our freezing field crew on Mauna Kea. Photo by Robert Stephens

By Robert Stephens, Project Coordinator, Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project

January 28, 2014, 7 a.m., Hilo, Hawai’i: As the field crew of the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project (MKFRP) drove up the rough dirt roads in the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve and parked on Skyline Road—10,300 feet high on the flanks of the dormant volcano—the conditions were dry. But the building clouds had an imposing darkness. The weather reminded Cheyanne Rapoza, Field Crew Leader, of a snowstorm that delayed the annual Palila surveys in 2011.

The goal for the six field staff that day was to split into two groups of three, with each group surveying two of the four final vegetation plots selected from a sample of 60. These surveys would assess current forest conditions and help serve as a baseline for habitat recovery for the Palila—last of the 16 “finch-billed” honeycreepers that used to occur in the main Hawaiian Islands.

Field staff in a snow storm on Mauna Kea, 2011. Left to right: Chris Farmer, ABC; Paul Banko-USGS; Cheyanne Rapoza-MKFRP; and Ku'ulei Vickery-MKFRP. Photo by Robert Stevens

Field staff in a snow storm on Mauna Kea, 2011. Left to right: Chris Farmer, ABC; Paul Banko-USGS; Cheyanne Rapoza-MKFRP; and Ku’ulei Vickery-MKFRP. Photo by Robert Stephens

Unfortunately, Cheyanne’s intuition was correct. At the first survey plot, a light but cold rain began to fall. What started out as just wet and cold hands (especially if you were holding the metal clipboard!) progressed to a numbness that crept toward their body cores over the three hours spent working in the constant rain fall. By the time Cheyenne’s crew was halfway finished surveying their second plot, they had decided to take refuge from the cold, wet conditions.

Snow in Hawai’i?

Thirty minutes into the arduous 1.5 hour slog back uphill to the truck, the rain turned to a heavy snowfall, coming down sideways due to the gusty winds on the mountain. Nearly two inches of snow had accumulated on the truck by the time the shivering surveyors reached it. The crew cranked the heater to high as they descended from snowy Mauna Kea back to sea level and a warm 70 degrees F in Hilo. Along the way they picked up the other crew, who had completed their two transects and were also soaked and ready to retreat from the weather

Think about it … snow in Hawai’i?! This event reminds us how special Mauna Kea is. Mauna Kea means the “white mountain” in Hawaiian because of its snow-covered peaks. It’s quite different from how many people envision Hawai’i. It is extremely rough and rugged, with temperatures regularly falling below freezing. It is one of the most sacred sites of Native Hawaiians, one of the best sites in the world for astronomical observations—and, of course, home to the Palila.

The Palila is a Hawaiian honeycreeper that is specially adapted to feed on the seeds of māmane trees, which grow on the high-altitude slopes of Mauna Kea. Photo by Robby Kohley

The Palila is a Hawaiian honeycreeper that is specially adapted to feed on the seeds of māmane trees, which grow on the high-altitude slopes of Mauna Kea. Photo by Robby Kohley

Paving the way for Palila recovery

This project is working to restore high-elevation dry forest for the Palila, a Hawaiian honeycreeper listed as endangered in 1973. This Critically Endangered bird now occurs only on the southwestern slope of Mauna Kea, which is less than five percent of its historical distribution on Hawai’i Island.

Palila are dependent upon māmane trees, a legume (pea family), that provides these birds with about 90 percent of their diet in the form of seeds that are toxic to most other animals, yellow flowers, young leaves, and moth larvae found in the seed pods.

Bye-bye black sheep

In 2013, the Hawai’i Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) began an eradication program to remove all hybrid-mouflon sheep from critical habitat designated for the Palila. Non-native ungulates like these have destroyed much of the forest over the past 200 years, and what remains is highly degraded due to continuing browse damage, drought, invasive plants, and fire.

Over 3,000 sheep were removed from Palila Critical Habitat  in 2013. Natural regeneration of māmane seedlings should increase habitat for the bird as sheep continue to be removed from Mauna Kea.

A view of the slopes of Mauna Kea from the air, showing habitat degradation by introduced non-native sheep. Photo by Robert Stevens

A view of the slopes of Mauna Kea from the air, showing habitat degradation caused by the grazing of introduced non-native sheep. Photo by Robert Stephens

Signs of success

Project staff are already observing habitat recovery at the 1,400-acre Ka’ohe Restoration Site, which was fenced in 2006 and has been sheep-free since then. Māmane saplings are over seven times more abundant at this site than on the other side of the fence, where sheep are still present.

American Bird Conservancy is a strong supporter of the work DOFAW and MKFRP are doing to restore forest on Mauna Kea and ensure the long-term viability of the Palila. To learn more about Palila ecology, threats and management, visit

Robert Stephens currently serves at the Coordinator for the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project and started working with Palila on Hawai’i Island in 2005. Previously, he worked for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He received a B.S. degree in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University and a M.S. degree in Zoology and Physiology from the University of Wyoming.