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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, August 11, 2003

State plans to kill Maui parrots

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

HUELO, Maui — State wildlife officials want to use lethal means to remove a flock of mitered conures from the wild after a nonprofit group failed to capture the parrots and move them to its Maui sanctuary.

An estimated 200 parrots living on the cliffs at Huelo Point, Maui, have state wildlife officials worried.

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In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied money for a proposal to survey and track the flock's movements and conduct "land-based control activities" to get rid of them, but state officials hope the project will fly later this summer with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

State wildlife biologist Fern Duvall called Maui's mitered conures "a ticking time bomb," an invasive non-native pest that threatens crops and native forest.

If the growing parrot flock isn't removed from the wild soon, Duvall said, it could become impossible to control, allowing the fruit-eating birds to accelerate the spread of miconia, the state's most-feared weed and target of millions of dollars in eradication work.

Teya Penniman, manager of the Maui Invasive Species Committee, said officials are looking at a $52,000 plan that includes land and air surveys to learn how big the population is, and radio tracking to find out where the birds are flying.

It has not been decided what methods will be used to eradicate them, she said. Officials talked about shooting or trapping and netting, although the latter option would involve rappelling down the precipitous Huelo sea cliffs.

"The goal is to remove all known mitered conures from the wild," Penniman said. "We know it's very controversial. They are beautiful creatures that a lot of people associate with a tropical paradise. But they are not part of Hawai'i."

A flock estimated at 200 birds grew apparently from a single pair released in Huelo in the mid-1980s. Today, the brightly plumed red-and-green conures nest high in the vertical sea cliffs at Huelo Point on Maui's north shore. On most mornings, the flock emerges from its nightly roost with loud shrieking, flies into the windward highlands and returns in the afternoon.

Wildlife officials were considering eradication in 2001, when Maui Animal Rescue and Sanctuary stepped forward with a plan to capture the birds and move them to an aviary at the group's Ha'iku property. Sanctuary officials said they wanted to prevent the state from shooting the birds.

Working with scientists with the World Parrot Trust, sanctuary officials planned to establish a base in Huelo where humane traps and a large cage would be constructed. The plan was to feed the birds and establish a habit of visitation, then shut the door.

The group was issued a yearlong permit to implement the plan. With progress slow, it made inquiries about getting another 12-month permit. That's when money for the project dried up, said Fern Van Sant, a bird veterinarian in San Jose, Calif., who is director of Maui Animal Rescue and Sanctuary.

Van Sant said the group ran into coastal-access problems in Huelo and she started using her own money to see the project through. A last-ditch effort involving a California biologist failed, and the project was abandoned.

"Every direction we turned, there was a roadblock at the end of the road," she said.

Penniman said such species upset the environmental balance of the Islands and put native plants and animals at risk.

Duvall said recent feeding trials have proved that miconia seeds can germinate after passing through the bird's digestive system. With the parrot's ability to fly long distances, he said, the threat worries those trying to stem the spread of invasive weeds.

"They will be a terrible problem if they get into the heartland of the (East Maui) miconia infestation," Duvall said. "It's a ticking time bomb that could change the structure of the forest."

Workers with the USDA's Wildlife Services branch would be hired for the work, but funding remains uncertain, said Mike E. Pitzler, state director of the federal agency. Special year-end money has been requested, he said, but budgetary restrictions make it likely that the state will have to match the money.

Van Sant predicted the state would have trouble removing all the swift-flying birds from the wild.

She said the parrot threat to crops and the environment was being overstated to justify the eradication plan. Although hungry conures eat miconia seeds in controlled experiments, she said it is not known whether they would do so in the wild. Van Sant also thinks there are far fewer birds than the state has suggested.

"I spent more time at that cliff at dawn than anyone else. We took video footage and counted and recounted, and we couldn't come up with 100 birds. It looks like roughly 60 birds to me," she said.

"So the odds that someday these birds are going to become a flock that blackens the sky are not good."

Reach Timothy Hurley at (808) 244-4880, or e-mail thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com.