For the Birds Radio Program: Birds in the News: Po'ouli extinct and glowing owls

Original Air Date: Dec. 9, 2004 Rerun Dates: Feb. 21, 2006

Sad news about the Poʻouli of Hawaii, and more cheerful news about Saw-whet Owls, and how their feathers glow pink under ultraviolet lights.

Duration: 3′55″


Birds in the News

This week on Birds in the News, we are saddened to report the possible extinction of yet another species, Po’ouli of Hawaii. Late last year, there were three known Po’oulis known in the world, all living on Maui. On September 9, one of them was captured by biologists in hopes of breeding it in captivity. But they were unable to capture, or even find, another. The captured male po’ouli died in captivity Friday, November 26, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The bird had recently contracted avian malaria, but the exact cause of death won’t be known until tests from the necropsy are completed.

The remaining two po’ouli, believed to be a male and a female, haven’t been seen for nearly a year. They might also have died, moved to another area or have just been missed by wildlife officials. “This species was a unique part of Earth’s history,” said Eric VanderWerf, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hawaiian bird recovery coordinator. “We’ll never have another one like it if it disappears. I kind of liken it in someway to the loss of the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel. If we lost that, we could never get it back.”

The rare Hawaiian honeycreeper had been kept at the Maui Bird Conservation Center in Olinda since it was captured for breeding on September 9. Biologists failed to capture a mate for the aging bird, which was found in the Hanawi Natural Area Reserve. The state, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Zoological Society of San Diego, which operates the Maui conservation center, began a search Tuesday to find the remaining two po’ouli in the remote rainforests of Maui.

The small, stocky, brown bird with a partial black face described as a bandit’s mask was discovered in 1973 by a group of University of Hawaii students conducting research on the east slope of Haleakala volcano. It is so unique that is has its own genus, and is the only Hawaiian forest bird to rely heavily on native tree snails for food.

Tissue samples from the dead bird were saved for cryogenic preservation for possible cloning in the future. “Someday, when technology catches up with our fantasies, we may be able to resurrect the po’ouli because we saved these cells,” Lieberman said.

The po’ouli’s numbers have dwindled because of habitat loss and introduced predators like rats, cats and mongoose. Nonnative diseases carried by mosquitoes have also taken a toll on the Hawaiian birds.

On a more cheerful note, we look at an interesting perspective on Northern saw-whet owls: Jim McCormac of the Ohio birding listserve says that on the Ohio Ornithological Society’s website, you can see a photo of a little Saw-whet basking under an ultra-violet light. Somehow, perhaps inspired by some of the interesting research done recently about how ultraviolet light used on Hawaiian birds shows plumage variations that people are unable to see under normal light, bird banders figured out that different ages of Saw-whet feathers glow different hues of pink under this type of light; the younger the feathers, the more pink they glow. Thus, you can get a good idea of the age of a bird quickly and efficiently, without undue stress. Plus, McCormac notes, it looks cool. I’ve linked to the photos on my own website at