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How millions of mosquitoes could save Hawaii's endangered birds

The 'i'iwi is one of Hawaii's honeycreepers, forest birds that are found nowhere else. There were once more than 50 species. Now, only 17 remain.
Ryan Kellman
The 'i'iwi is one of Hawaii's honeycreepers, forest birds that are found nowhere else. There were once more than 50 species. Now, only 17 remain.

To a lot of people, mosquito bites are annoying. To the rare Hawaiian honeycreeper, they're deadly.

Mosquitoes aren't native to Hawaii. They carry avian malaria. And honeycreepers, tiny birds that are found only on the Hawaiian islands, haven't yet evolved the immune defenses to fight back.

The effects have been devastating. There used to be more than 50 species of honeycreepers. Today, 17 are on the edge of extinction.

On Maui, the second-largest of the Hawaiian islands, parts of the native forest are at elevations too cold for mosquitoes to survive. But higher average global temperatures mean that this natural habitat for the birds is shrinking. The honeycreepers are in danger once again.

Bird conservationists in Maui have tried familiar routes: Planting more trees, establishing breeding programs. But now they're trying new innovations — like releasing millions of mosquitoes incapable of mating into the wild as a form of population control.

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This episode was produced by Hannah Chinn. It was edited by Rebecca Ramirez, and fact-checked by Lauren Sommer and Ryan Kellman. The audio engineer was Gilly Moon.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Emily Kwong (she/her) is the reporter for NPR's daily science podcast, Short Wave. The podcast explores new discoveries, everyday mysteries and the science behind the headlines — all in about 10 minutes, Monday through Friday.
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.
Ryan Kellman is a producer and visual reporter for NPR's science desk. Kellman joined the desk in 2014. In his first months on the job, he worked on NPR's Peabody Award-winning coverage of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He has won several other notable awards for his work: He is a Fulbright Grant recipient, he has received a John Collier Award in Documentary Photography, and he has several first place wins in the WHNPA's Eyes of History Awards. He holds a master's degree from Ohio University's School of Visual Communication and a B.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute.
Hannah Chinn
Rebecca Ramirez (she/her) is the founding producer of NPR's daily science podcast, Short Wave. It's a meditation in how to be a Swiss Army Knife, in that it involves a little of everything — background research, finding and booking sources, interviewing guests, writing, cutting the tape, editing, scoring ... you get the idea.