default blog post image

Out of sight, out of time?

Here's a quiz for the birdwatchers out there: Which country has experienced the greatest loss of bird species over the past quarter century? (And by "greatest loss," I mean global extinctions). The answer is not Brazil, Indonesia, Colombia, or some other developing country—it's the United States. By my calculation, nine species of birds have vanished from the US since 1980 (see Wilcove, D.S. 2005. "Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker." Science 308: 1422-1423), by far the largest number of any nation during this time period. The majority of these extinctions—six out of nine—occurred in Hawaii. Indeed, our fiftieth state can justly be called the Extinction Capital of the World. At least half of Hawaii's native land birds were extirpated by the early Polynesian settlers, who cleared the lowland forests, hunted the larger species, and introduced the first of what would eventually become an army of non-native species that prey upon or compete with the native species. And approximately half of the remaining species disappeared following the arrival of European settlers in the 19th century. The Europeans cleared still more of the forests and brought with them many more harmful invasive species, including mosquitoes that transmitted two deadly diseases-avian pox and avian malaria-to the native birds. What is so troubling about the Hawaiian experience is that the losses continue to mount, notwithstanding all the agencies, laws, and regulations we have created to prevent these things from happening. The poouli, a dapper little songbird restricted to a small area of cloud forest in Maui, vanished in 2004. And within the past few years, populations of two more songbirds—the Kauai akepa and the Kauai creeper—appear to have crashed, raising the possibility that they, too, will become extinct in the not-too-distant future. Moreover, the birds are just the tip of the iceberg: hundreds of other Hawaiian species—from mammals to insects to vascular plants—teeter on the brink of extinction. Sadly, the conservation of Hawaii's amazing flora and fauna has been a relatively low priority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with safe-guarding the nation's imperiled wildlife. Much more money has been spent on behalf of the mainland's abundant ducks and geese or even its endangered species than has been devoted to Hawaii's beleaguered species. And Hawaii's Congressional delegation, which includes two of the most senior members of the U.S. Senate, has shown little interest in going to bat for the state's wildlife. Hawaii's fauna and flora are unique precisely because the Hawaiian Islands are so remote and isolated. But that isolation appears to have worked against those species in another way: it has left far too many Americans unaware of the tidal wave of extinction that is sweeping over our fiftieth state. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- David Wilcove is professor of ecology, evolutionary biology, and public affairs at Princeton University and one of the world’s leading experts on endangered species. He is the author of No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations.