The history of this cryptic Hawaiian honeycreeper is a brief and unfortunate one. In 1973, a small group of researchers from the University of Hawaii made a surprising discovery in the remote mountains of Haleakala, a new species of bird unknown to historical collectors, or in Hawaiian oral tradition. Representing a monotypic genus the new species was eventually given the name Poouli, which means "black-faced" in Hawaiian.
Not much more was learned about the poouli for another decade. A 1980 survey of the birds of the Hawaiian Islands estimated poouli at 140 birds, but was based on few sightings (Scott et al. 1986). Anecdotal observations suggested a decline in the poouli population due to increasing habitat damage by feral pigs (Mountainspring et al. 1990). From dietary analyses, it was determined that the poouli was unique in the Hawaiian honeycreeper lineage as it relied predominately on native land snails for food (Baldwin and Casey 1983). In 1986, the first two nests of the poouli were found high in native ohia trees - the only ones ever discovered. These nests were studied intensively and one fledgling was reared from the second attempt (Kepler et al.1996).
In 1986, the first step for the preservation of Maui's endangered forest bird community was taken when a 3,000-hectare portion of the Koolau Forest Reserve was designated as the Hanawi Natural Area Reserve. Containing the highest densities of native birds on Maui, the upper forests of Hanawi were fenced in 1991 to exclude feral pigs and allow the understory to regenerate. Due to a lack of funds from state or federal research groups, little research was done in the Hanawi area until the mid 1990s.
A 1988 survey revealed the species had disappeared from its westernmost range possibly due to pig activity (Engilis 1990). A "rare bird search" for all of the critically endangered forest birds in Hawaii was initiated in 1994. These searches detected fewer than ten poouli remaining in Hanawi. By 1997, only three poouli could be found. They were thought to be located in three geographically separate home ranges in the Hanawi Natural Area Reserve (Baker 2001, Reynolds and Snetsinger 2001). The three known poouli were all captured and banded in 1997 and 1998 verifying three different individuals in three different areas. Despite many hours in the field searching, no more poouli were found. In 1998, experts around the world were consulted to implement a recovery plan. Many recommended a predator control program be initiated and a grid system was set up to do that.
When the three remaining poouli were captured for banding, feather samples were taken for DNA analysis. Several labs were consulted for sexing, however, conflicting results were returned. Only one lab was confident stating that the remaining Poouli were two females and one male, meaning that hope for the recovery of the species remained. In order to save the poouli, the first goal was getting the birds to produce young. The last known breeding occurred in the 1994-1995 seasons, as immature birds were seen with adults.
The first step in producing young was getting the birds together. It was decided that the safest way to do this was to translocate one of the females across the mountain into the territory of the male. Trial runs with Maui Alauahio were performed in 2001, to determine the best method of transport by examining the stress levels of translocated birds. In early 2002, the translocation was given the go-ahead and in April of that year our team successfully translocated one female poouli. The bird was captured in HR1, put in a transport container and hiked for 1 1/4 hours across the mountain to HR3. When it arrived at HR3, a transmitter was attached to the bird and it was given food and monitored until the end of the day. Near dusk, the bird was hiked to a spot where the male had been seen in previous days. The hope was that the female would roost in the male's territory and then meet up with him the next day. The next morning, the team radio-tracked the bird as she began the day in the male's territory. Radio signals observed the female slowly making her way back across the mountain to her own home range. The production of a pair had failed.
In June of 2002, another decision was made. This time it was decided to bring all three remaining birds into captivity at the captive-breeding facility in Olinda, Maui run by the San Diego Zoological Society. You can read the background for that decision and the preparations and precautions taken here.
In September 2004, the male poouli from HR3 was captured and transported to the Maui Bird Conservation Center. The male was considered to be a very old individual with only one eye. On November 26, 2004 this bird that was hoped to be a last ditch effort to save an extremely rare Hawaiian forest bird died. The other two individuals believed to be the only remaining poouli in the world were never seen again.
We currently have research efforts ongoing in Hanawi for other endangered forest birds in the hopes that the recovery efforts will not come too late in the future. While the poouli is believed to be extinct, we still hold onto hope that one will pop up one of these days and we are out there to find it when it does.
Baker, P.E. 2001. Status and distribution of the Poouli in the Hanawi Natural Area Reserve between December 1995 and June 1997. Studies in Avian Biology 22:144-150
Baldwin , P.H. and T.L.C. Casey. 1983. A preliminary list of foods of the Poouli. Elepaio 43:53-56
Casey, T.L.C. and J.D. Jacobi. 1974. A new genus and species of bird from the Island of Maui, Hawaii (Passeriformes: Drepanididae). Occasional Papers Bernice P. Bishop Museum 24:216-226
Engilis, A., Jr. 1990. Field notes on native forest birds in the Hanawi Natural Area Reserve, Maui. Elepaio 50:67-72
James, H.F. and S.L. Olsen. 1991. Descriptions of 32 new species of birds from the Hawaiian Islands: Part II. Passeriformes. Ornithol. Monogr. 46:1-88
Kepler, C.B., T.K. Pratt, A.M. Ecton, A. Engilis, Jr., and K.M. Fluetsch. 1996. Nesting behavior of the Poouli. Wilson Bulletin 108:620-638
Mountainspring, S., T.L.C. Casey, C.B. Kepler, and J.M. Scott. 1990. Ecology, behavior, and conservation of the Poouli (Melamprosops phaeosoma). Wilson Bulletin 102: 109-122
Olsen, S.L. and H.F. James. 1991. Descriptions of 32 new species of birds from the Hawaiian Islands: Part I. Non-Passeriformes. Ornithol. Monogr. 45:1-88
Reynolds, M.H. and T.J. Snetsinger. 2001. The Hawaii Rare Bird Search 1994-1996. Studies in Avian Biology 22:133-143.
Scott, J.M., S.Mountainspring, F.L. Ramsey, and C.B. Kepler. 1986. Forest bird communities of the Hawaiian Islands: their dynamics, ecology, and conservation. Studies in Avian Biology 9.