The palila (Loxioides bailleui) is a member of the Hawaiian honeycreeper family of birds (Drepanidinae), which is renowned for the profusion of species - many with bizarre bills and specialized feeding habits - that radiated from a single ancestral type. Most of the 57 or so honeycreeper species are extinct, and the palila is endangered because of its high degree of dependence on the mamane tree (Sophora chrysophylla) (Figure 1) and its restricted distribution on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea (Figure 2). Three decades of research have revealed many important facts about palila, providing the foundation and impetus for conservation programs in the wild and captivity. Additionally, an ambitious public conservation campaign arose due to the land-use conflicts on Mauna Kea. Here we summarize progress in palila conservation biology and outline steps that might overcome the remaining major challenges to its recovery. We also highlight lessons learned from palila research that may help the recovery of other Hawaiian forest birds.
Palila and two closely-related species on the tiny islands of Nihoa and Laysan are the last of the seed-eating honeycreeper species in the Hawaiian Islands. About a quarter of the honeycreeper species known from living and fossil specimens had finch-like bills suited mainly for eating seeds and fruits. Because of their dietary specialization, palila are vulnerable to changes in forest size and quality, as was also likely the case for extinct species of seed specialists. Palila and many other forest bird species were once distributed in dry, lowland forests. Fossil records indicate that palila also occurred in the lowlands of O`ahu and Kaua`i until human settlement of those islands. However, because lowland habitats have been highly modified by humans and because mamane occurs today primarily at high elevation, palila are the only native bird species found exclusively in dry, subalpine habitat (2000?2850 m). Similar to other feeding specialists, palila lay few eggs, raise few young each year, and take a relatively long time to complete the nesting cycle. Low rates of reproduction result in low rates of population growth and low potential for recovery from disturbances.
Long-term studies of palila offer important insights into the conservation biology of all Hawaiian forest bird species, particularly feeding specialists like the palila. Palila face many challenges common to both generalist and specialist Hawaiian honeycreeper species. Habitat loss and degradation, as well as introduced avian diseases, have reduced their numbers and limited their distribution to a very small portion of their historic range. Introduced mammals prey on palila, while alien insects reduce caterpillars that are particularly important in the diet of nestlings. Securing legal protection and funding for palila restoration has been challenging. Understanding how the palila has avoided extinction can help managers plan its recovery, and better design recovery plans for species with different feeding strategies in other habitats.