A Hawaiian palila bird on a branch. Photo by Bettina Arrigoni, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

San Diego Zoo Global announced Tuesday that a half-dozen critically endangered birds raised in its avian conservation facility on the Hawaiian archipelago have been released into the wild for the first time.

Conservation researchers at the zoo’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, located on the island of Hawaii, hatched and raised six palila in recent weeks, releasing them into an area of restored forest Sunday and Monday. Palila are a distant relative of finches and are the last survivor of 16 finch- billed species native to the main Hawaiian islands, according to the zoo.

Palila numbers have been significantly affected by non-native predators like large cats and mongooses and the loss of mamane trees, which palila feed on and are eaten by sheep and goats. Palila used to be found on Kauai and Oahu, but are now only found on the slopes of Mauna Kea, according to the zoo.

“Having such a small population in one area puts the species at a very high risk of extinction,” said Lainie Berry, a forest bird recovery coordinator with Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. “This release is the beginning of our attempt to establish a second population on the mountain to broaden their current range and reduce the extinction threat.”

The zoo has worked with multiple conservation organizations and Hawaiian state agencies to reinvigorate the palila species, which has become a priority for the American Bird Conservancy. Mamane forest restoration has been in progress since 2008, according to the zoo, with thousands of trees planted as high as 8,000 feet up Mauna Kea.

Conservation researchers plan to release more palila into the wild later this year and in years to come. Researchers expect the restoration to take multiple decades, which is how long it took for the species to decline. There are roughly 1,000 palila currently left in the wild, according to the zoo.

“This milestone shows how we can avert the tragedy of extinction when we use years of research to guide conservation decisions,” said Koa Matsuoka, senior research coordinator for San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. “Our reintroduction efforts with this species can be a model for other efforts to fight extinction in the future.”

City News Service

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