Unique Hawaii moorhen needs human protection
Hawaii is a very small state, but it has so many endangered species. Hawaii has one-third of the animals on the nation's endangered species list. That is a lot of animals! Ninety percent of Hawaii's endangered animals are endemic. Endemic means that a plant or animal lives only in a certain place in the world.
One of these animals is the alae'ula, or Hawaiian common moorhen. Although there are many species of moorhen in North America, this one is special to Hawaii. The bird does not migrate, and scientists do not know when the bird was introduced to the islands. Scientists first described this bird on Kauai in 1839, but it didn't get its official scientific name (gallinule choloropus sandvicensis) until 1877. It is slightly larger than its cousin, the North American common moorhen (gallinule choloropus choloropus).
This bird lives in marshes, streams, freshwater ponds, taro patches and reservoirs. It is a slate-gray-colored bird with white tail feathers and flanks, and a red shield on its forehead. It has chicken-like feet with one long toe in the middle that helps it swim and walk on lily pads. These water birds used to be found on most of the Hawaiian islands, but today these birds live only on Oahu and Kauai. The alae'ula needs our help to prevent it from becoming extinct.
The highest populations of alae'ula are in the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge on Kauai, the Kahuku Ukoa Wetlands and the Waialua lotus fields on Oahu. The alae'ula and other endangered birds like the coot also live at the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge in Kahuku. Some of these areas are protected by the government and some are not.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted the birds between 2000 and 2004 and found only 400 of them. That is not a lot.
There are several reasons why this bird is endangered. The alae'ula has many predators. Animals like rats and mongooses eat their eggs. Avian diseases and the invasion of habitats from alien species are also a problem. Their biggest threat is humans. Humans pollute the birds' wetlands or destroy them through development, so the alae'ula has no place to live.
The alae'ula was first put on the federal endangered species list on March 11, 1967. It was at great risk of disappearing when the population dropped below 60 birds in the 1940s. The population has grown since then, but not enough to take it off the list.
According to Fish and Wildlife, the government needs to count 2,000 birds every year for 10 years before it can take this bird off the endangered species list.
This past August, Fish and Wildlife released a plan that listed four steps it believed would protect this bird. One, increase the bird population. Two, create breeding groups of the birds. Three, create and protect core and supporting wetlands. And four, eliminate and control threats such as predators, bird diseases and pollution. An article in the Oct. 16 Star-Bulletin said the government wants to buy some of the James Campbell NWR to make the wetlands there bigger. That is a good idea.
We need to protect the alae'ula before it is gone. We need to protect the places where we know it lives. People can help by not releasing non-native animals in its wetlands. Developers can help by not destroying what is already there. The government can help by building more wetlands and protecting what we already have. Everyone needs to work together to protect our world's special plants and animals.
Erin Voss, age 9, is a fourth-grader at Moanalua Elementary School.
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