Paradise threatened

Biologist works to save Hawaii's endangered water birds

Despite its thick forests and glistening waterways, Hawaii has been called the endangered species capital of the United States. More than one-third of the species that are endangered in the country are in Hawaii. Both the Polynesians, arriving in the 1300s, and the Europeans, arriving in the late 1700s, altered the ecosystem, clearing forests and bringing exotic species of animals and plants to the island.

The Polynesians arrived with dogs, pigs, rats, lizards and new plants. The exotic plants, including agricultural plants such as taro, took over where native plants once thrived, displacing the food wildlife ate and the places they lived. Exotic animals attacked native animals, which had no defenses against them. The Polynesians hunted native species, especially some of the beautiful birds for their feathers.

Adult Hawaiian stilts © J. Michael Reed

Captain James Cook of Mutiny on the Bounty fame arrived with feral pigs, which added to the problems by gnawing at the roots of plants and trees. When the trees died, erosion occurred, and waterways were polluted, destroying the habitat of many animals. Centuries later, agricultural and industrial development added to the destruction.

Reclaiming wetlands
In the last few hundred years, says J. Michael Reed, associate professor of biology at Tufts, forest birds have become extinct, and most of the native flora and fauna are endangered. Water birds fared somewhat better, although of the six species found nowhere else in the world, all are in danger. Reed is working to help save four of these species.

He was recently awarded an $8,000 grant from the Tufts Institute for the Environment (TIE) that will go toward his project to help design wetlands to maximize their use by the endangered birds. Richard Vogel, professor of civil and environmental engineering, is also working on the project. Vogel said the work is similar to water supply projects he has been involved in, including a recent challenge to deliver reliable and high quality water while also generating hydropower and controlling floods.

A Hawaiian coot © J. Michael Reed

The four birds Reed is focusing on are the Hawaiian stilt, the Hawaiian moorhen, the koloa (Hawaiian duck) and the Hawaiian coot. Each has different habitat requirements, some preferring shallow water, others deep water. Some prefer vegetation nearby; others do not, but they often use the same wetlands for breeding and feeding.

"When you have multiple endangered species with different habitat requirements," Reed said, "how do you manage for them? What is the best mix of water depths and vegetation cover to maximize different species?"

Reed wants to put his information into a bigger picture, answering such questions as how to create sufficient habitat to help a species recover. "We're looking at population size relative to a body of water and what's around it," he said. "What affects their numbers? We would like to make a statewide population model so we would know if we renovate wetlands how much of an increase in the number of birds we could expect. Or, where is the best place to build or restore a wetland?"

Enter the technology
Reed is developing a software program that will allow users to design wetland habitats by asking a series of questions. "It will ask users to answer what size of wetlands they want, what species they want, and then get the best solution along with the next five solutions, as well as a guide on what to choose."

Reed's involvement in Hawaiian water birds goes back to his days as a postdoctoral student at the University of Nevada, Reno, when he was working with a shore bird ecologist and obtained a grant to work on stilt genetic diversity. Someone was needed to gather stilt blood samples, and Reed found himself in Hawaii, catching chicks and drawing blood.

A Hawaiian moorhen © J. Michael Reed

He has always loved being outdoors, and his interest in birds dates back to high school, when he started birding. He has been to Hawaii twice in the last year, but before that, he didn't go for four years since his travel is dependent on grants. He has made sure, however, to establish good contacts with refuge managers, biologists and state officials in Hawaii. "You need to keep in contact with people there," he said. "Half the battle in endangered species work is communication. People need to know and trust you, or you can come in with useful studies, and they won't listen."

The TIE grant, along with other funding, will help pay for a graduate student to work on the modeling project and to go to Hawaii to present the model at a workshop. Reed hopes to have the software finished by the end of this year and, after getting feedback from biologists in Hawaii, revise the program and have it in use next summer.