'Akepas are small, active Hawaiian honeycreepers that can be found foraging high in the canopy of native high-elevation rainforest on the island of Hawaii. Distinct forms of this species were previously found on Oahu and Maui, but it is likely that both of these subspecies are now extinct. 'Akepa populations on Hawaii are currently threatened by the specters of logging, cattle-ranching, and the introduction of new predators, competitors, and disease-carrying agents.
Adult male 'Akepas found on the island of Hawaii are small, orange-red Hawaiian honeycreepers with short, yellow bills and long, notched tails. Black wings and black tails contrast with the birds' bright orange bodies. The subspecies of 'Akepa found on Maui is extremely endangered or extinct; adult males of this subspecies have yellow bodies and gray bills. The subspecies of 'Akepa found on Oahu is now extinct; adult males of that subspecies were brick red with gray bills. Females on Hawaii have dull grayish green upperparts, dark wings and tails, and variable underparts that usually have a yellow breast band.
Distribution and Population Trends
'Akepas were traditionally found on the Hawaiian Islands of Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii, with a different subspecies inhabiting each island. The Oahu subspecies is now believed to be extinct, while the Maui subspecies is either extinct, or at best, extremely rare. If 'Akepas do still exist on Maui, they are likely to be found only in Haleakala National Park, Hanawi Natural Area Reserve, and Waikamoi Preserve. On the island of Hawaii, 'Akepas are found in three different areas: the Hamakua Volcano region, upper forests of Kau, and the north slope of Hualalai.
Populations trends for 'Akepas are difficult to assess. On the island of Hawaii, the number of birds at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) seems to be stable, while the population at Hualalai seems to be declining. On Maui, 10 'Akepas were detected in 1980, only one bird was seen in 1988, and no birds have been seen since 1992, despite extensive fieldwork there.
Although not visible in the field, 'Akepas possess very unusual bills in which the lower mandible is bent to one side. The birds use these modified bills to open up leaf and flower buds in search of arthropods, much like crossbills use their crossed bills to extract seeds from conifer cones. 'Akepas' unusual bill structure is found in only one other bird species, the related 'Akeke'e. These two birds were treated as a single species between 1950 and 1991, on the basis of the unique bill structure they share. However, these two birds differ in a number of ways, including plumage color, degree of sexual dimorphism, specific feeding behavior, song structure, and nesting behavior.
'Akepas on Hawaii nest only in cavities in large, old-growth 'ohi'a and koa trees. Since no Hawaiian birds are known to excavate tree cavities, 'Akepas are dependent on naturally occurring cavities for nesting sites. Females are solely responsible for nest construction, which is unusual among the insectivorous and nectarivorous members of the Hawaiian honeycreepers group. Typical clutches have only one or two eggs, which results in an unusually low annual reproductive output for a small songbird. Another interesting aspect of 'Akepas' breeding behavior is that males perform large, lek-like group displays, despite the fact that 'Akepas are monogamous birds that form long-term pair bonds.
On the island of Hawaii, 'Akepas are found in montane forest between 1,100 and 2,100 meters of elevation. The species is found in highest numbers in old-growth forest with large 'ohi'a or koa trees, but 'Akepas also occur in good numbers in disturbed forest as long as there are some large trees available for nesting sites. 'Akepas are active birds that forage in the canopy for small spiders and caterpillars on 'ohi'a leaf clusters and on koa leaves and seedpods. These birds usually forage alone or in pairs, but following the breeding season, family groups of 'Akepas will join mixed-species flocks on Hawaii.
Logging and cattle-ranching, which have already destroyed large amounts of prime 'Akepa habitat on Hawaii, continue to pose threats to 'Akepa populations on the Big Island. This species is an obligate cavity nester, using only cavities found in large 'ohi'a or koa trees. The logging of old, mature trees eliminates potential nesting sites and decreases available foraging habitat. 'Akepas, like other native Hawaiian forest birds, also face the threat of introduced plants and animals, which can result in new predators, competitors, and disease vectors. The introduction of temperate mosquitoes that can survive at higher elevations (where there are currently few or no mosquitoes), could devastate 'Akepas by spreading deadly diseases for which the birds have no defense.
Both the Hawaii 'Akepa and the Maui 'Akepa were listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in October 1970. A large population of 'Akepas on Hawaii is protected at the Hakalau Forest NWR, which was created in 1985 to protect native Hawaiian forest birds and their habitats. A threatened population of these birds is protected by the Pu'u Wa'awa'a State Wildlife Preserve on northern Hualalai. 'Akepas also receive lesser protection at the Ka'u Forest Reserve, Kulani Prison, and Kilauea-Keauhou forests. Current conservation efforts on Hawaii include the introduction of artificial nest cavities at Hakalau Forest NWR. While only one artificial cavity (out of 69) has been used by 'Akepas, that one cavity was used successfully by a pair two years in a row.
While the reasons for the decline of 'Akepas on Maui are not understood, conservation efforts on that island have included the virtual elimination of feral pigs from important natural areas, as well as attempts to control rat populations. Despite these efforts, Maui 'Akepas have continued to decline, and may well be extinct.
What Can You Do?
U.S. National Wildlife Refuges provide essential habitat for 'Akepas, and a great number of other species throughout the U.S. and its territories. Unfortunately, the refuge system is often under-funded during the U.S. government's budgeting process. To support U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, consider purchasing a duck stamp which helps to fund wetland habitats in refuges: http://www.fws.gov/duckstamps/
BirdLife International (2006) Species factsheet: Loxops coccineus, 'Akepa http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=8919
Pratt, H.D., P. L. Bruner, and D. G Berrett. 1987. The Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Lepson, J.K. and L.A. Freed. 1997. 'Akepa (Loxops coccineus). In The Birds of North America, No. 294 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D. C.